Public sector communications job applications 101

Young job seekers get advised by their teachers to do “informational interviews” to gain an understanding of job opportunities and expectations at a given workplace (and, secretly, in hopes of being top of mind if an opening comes up, which only works if you stay in touch following said interview).

I always make myself available for these. I like sharing what I’ve learned (hence my addiction to Twitter, the ultimate sharing/learning space) and it makes for good karma. I work in a mid-sized city with approximately one and one-half degrees of separation and just about everyone in my profession knows everyone else, so it really does help people plug into the network of communications/PR/marketing folks.

Based on what I’ve seen serving on quite a few search committees in the public sector, the informational-interview advice applies to everyone, not just those wet-behind-the-ears recent grads. 

This is particularly true for people seeking to move from the private sector into the public sector, or from a profession they believe is related to the position for which they are applying. The assumptions some of you make—honestly!

I offer some basics here for your consideration. In another post I share some quite flippant remarks from the trenches tweeted in real time while I plowed through 61 applications in a row, fortified by coffee.

Understand the job. Interview people doing the same thing or similar work, and people in the agency or institution you want to work for. If you can interview someone who left the job, even better.

Understand the field. Especially if you seek to make a change, you need to prove how your past experience prepares you for new responsibilities and challenges. I see this omission a lot in people working in the media who want to move into PR: “I dealt with people in positions like this one, so I know what your job entails.”

Really? Well, I’ve dealt with my doctor so that means I know how to perform surgery. I’ve dealt with my kid’s teacher so that means I know how to manage a room full of hormone-ridden, anxious teenagers. 

Prove it, because honestly, that’s a really insulting statement. How does “I’ve watched you on TV so I know how to be a reporter” feel? (Yes, your work in the media is good preparation. You just have to show you understand in what ways it was preparation for this job.)

Understand the process. What are their hiring and screening procedures? Ask. Someone will tell you. Timelines can be really, really l-o-n-g. . . .

Follow the process. We have to treat everyone going through it the same way so it doesn’t pay to try to end-run it. Remember, most hiring committees are looking for the fastest possible way to winnow the pile, and throwing out people who disregard procedures (especially for a job in the procedure-heavy public sector) is a really fast way to do so.

Understand the position description (PD). Every element is in there for a reason. Sometimes the reasons were created by the last person in the position not performing as expected and the PD was updated to compensate.

Understand the job of the reviewer. Address every element of the PD in your application. We don’t guess, we don’t read between the lines, we don’t give a lot of points for creativity if your creativity fails to help us understand your qualifications.

Understand reality and demonstrate your firm grip on it. Don’t use superlatives or grandiose language. One application referred to “my vast experience.” This “vast experience” consisted of 10 years in a related field, but not doing anything like what the position called for. This is not vast experience, this is delusions of grandeur.

Proofread, people, proofread! Really. Truly. When the first sentence of the cover letter starts out “I am an experience communications professional” I know you’re not. When you go on to use the word “experience” again in that sentence, I know you’re not a very good writer, either.

If you get the interview, ask the names and titles of those you will be meeting with. This is generally not secret information.

Prepare for the interview. Do some research. Come prepared to connect with the interviewers as individuals (just not in a creepy stalkerish way). Understand where they fit in the organization and how they will (or won’t) work on a regular basis with the position you want. This will frame their questions and how they process your answers. Hey, you may even be able to speak directly to something you know interests that person (hint: I like and utilize social media).

Prepare some more for the interview. Come prepared to demonstrate that you have connected already with the institution. I still recall years ago when an internal candidate seeking a promotion flunked my question, which was to talk about the degrees offered by the unit in which she worked.

How many times have people demonstrated that they haven’t even bothered to read the website? I’ve lost count. It may be out of date (extra points if you recognize this possibility and look around for other sources and you won't believe the points I give if you demonstrate you looked in social networks) but it’s the public face. Use it.

Goes without saying, but I’m sayin’ it: Treat everyone—everyone—with respect and courtesy. One of my favorite little tricks (now you know) is to make sure we include someone with the title of Administrative Assistant in the interview. If you ignore this person repeatedly, or always and only address your answers to the highest title in the room, you’ve blown it.

In higher ed and I’m sure in many other public agencies, departmental secretaries are your best friends and story ideas and resources come from people throughout the entire organizational food chain. If you don’t get that (and if you’re that much of a snob), so long.

For a blow-me-away bonus round, send thank-you notes. Handwritten. Personally addressed to individuals you met. This happens so rarely it almost brings tears to my eyes, and it definitely brings a smile to my face. An e-mail thank is better than nothing. If you do that, please for heaven’s sake take the extra 120 seconds it requires to send individual emails rather than a bulk email to the entire committee.

This isn't everything but believe me, if you follow this checklist you are miles ahead of most of the applicants.

Special PS for "senior" communications practitioners: If you don't think you need to learn anything about this new-fangled social media fad because you have decades of vast experience, think again.


  1. From someone who has crossed over, that is nicely put, Barb...

  2. Great advice that I will share with my daughter! When I applied for the substitute teaching position in a neighboring school district, I had the option of importing my info from my previous attempt to secure a position in my home school district. When I opened the cover letter, BAM! There was a stinkin' typo in the very first line -- "... interesting ...." instead of "... interested ..."! No wonder I never heard a thing -- I'm sure my application was jettisoned immedidately! Luckily, I was much more careful with this latest application, and I got the job. Live and learn! :)

  3. I know most of this, but it's always good to be reminded of things, Barb. Thanks for the tips. I'm sure they'll come in handy for me sometime.

  4. Most excellent. My younger daughter's searching for a summer job in NYC at this moment. She can certainly benefit from this one. Hey, so can I!

  5. I can relate to what you outlined here so well! I am currently a student at Cal Poly Pomona and have been on a search committee for the past few months. Reading this post I feel like we are on the same committee. Experiencing this process has been very enlightening and I hope that I remember many of these points when I apply for jobs myself. Again, very well written.


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