OPM looking for feedback on decades-old standards for government communicators

The last time the Office of Personnel Management updated its classification standard for public affairs, the minds behind Twitter were in elementary school and the birth of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was still three years off.

Earlier this month, however, OPM took a step toward bringing the government communicator role into the 21st century, with a call for participants in a group study “to determine any updates and/or revisions to the current classification and qualification standards...

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The last time the Office of Personnel Management updated its classification standard for public affairs, the minds behind Twitter were in elementary school and the birth of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was still three years off.

Earlier this month, however, OPM took a step toward bringing the government communicator role into the 21st century, with a call for participants in a group study “to determine any updates and/or revisions to the current classification and qualification standards for the Public Affairs Series 1035.”

“The purpose of the meetings is to discuss agencies’ current experiences classifying this type of work,” the Nov. 17 notice stated. “We are specifically interested in how this work has changed in agencies since the issuance of the current position classification standard in July 1981.”

Perhaps the biggest change to the role of a public affairs specialist is electronic and digital communication, said John Verrico, president of the National Association of Government Communicators. Verrico also works as the chief of media relations for DHS’ Science & Technology
Directorate. He spoke to Federal News Radio in his capacity as NAGC president.

“The advent of electronic and digital communication and social media has enabled the government to have more direct communications and direct access with constituents,” Verrico said.

In the 1980s, “there wasn’t this digital access like we have now,” he said. “Also a lot of the communication was really focused working through media — working with reporters, mass media. They were the ones who helped carry our stories to the public. So we as public affairs officers for the government had to be both reactive and proactive. That really hasn’t changed much, but the landscape of media has changed.”

Thirty years ago, most opportunities for communication were limited to customer service centers or places where people came to fill out forms.

“I think the skill set for public affairs specialists, for that aspect, is basically the same,” Verrico said. “We still have to take the technical language of government and government jargon and be able to translate something that’s easily digested by people not embedded in it.”

What’s becoming critical for government communicators, Verrico said, is knowing where to put information to make it easily accessible for people.

“You can’t just put information out there and expect people to find it,” he said. “You have to push the link to those resources of critical information.”

Today’s challenges for public affairs specialists include humanizing the government and retaining those people who are good in their roles as communicators.

“It’s really really crucial for the tax paying public [to understand] that government entities … are a conglomerate of human beings,” Verrico said.

And those humans, no matter the field, will have the tendency to look for the next opportunity to try something new, or strive for a promotion — including those in public affairs offices, Verrico said.

The key to keeping these employees is to demonstrate how joining the federal ranks will give them a broader experience than at a smaller public affairs agency or marketing firm.

“I think that is a good selling point for the government,” Verrico said. “This is where you’re going to get a broad range of experiences, not just do one kind of thing.”

OPM is looking for subject matter experts in the public affairs and human resources realms. The agency defines these SMEs as:

  • A hiring manager who employs a variety of employees in public affairs occupations at a range of grade levels. The SME will have firsthand knowledge of the job functions, competencies, skills, and experiences and background necessary to perform successfully public affairs work.
  • A staffing/classification specialist or HR functional liaison who deals primarily with recruiting and examining for public affairs positions. The SME will have worked with hiring managers and staff members to create job opportunity announcements (JOAs), occupational questionnaires and review resumes. The SME will have firsthand knowledge of the job functions, competencies, skills, experiences and background necessary to successfully perform public affairs work.

Those interested are asked to submit their name, agency, email and phone contact to Riconda Fortson by Dec. 9.  Fortson can also be reached at 757-441-3224.

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