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Government Relations Officer

What They Do

Insider Info

Government relations officers usually represent clients with a special public or private interest. They discuss issues with politicians at all levels of government in the hope of influencing legislative proceedings and helping pass bills into laws that would benefit those they represent. They also wrangle for government funding for their clients, and teach members of their organizations how to lobby on their own.

"Government relations means relating to the government, on all different levels," says government relations officer Louise MacNaughton. "It involves going to government to get what you want, by trying to change the decisions government has made or influence the decisions they're making."

"Government relations officers try to make a case on behalf of their client, and usually the case they make is that their client deserves funding," says Barry Burden, an assistant professor at Harvard University's department of government.

"Government is growing and as their budget continues to grow, they're funding all sorts of projects, whether it's grants to communities or spending on roads or dollars for education. And so even private firms are really concerned about getting their share of these funds."

Although a lot of government relations officers lobby for the success of their organizations, there's an important distinction between them and hired guns -- independent lobbyists who work on a specific contract.

"When you hear the term lobbyist, you think of someone who does nothing but act on politics," says Burden. "They might work for a group like the NRA or the Sierra Club or some group with a political agenda, and their job is to articulate that group's interests to government.

"However, government relations officers work for many groups that don't seem political on the surface, whether that be a university or a nonprofit group or a business of some kind -- groups that aren't traditional interest groups, but that still need government funding or want government to make policies that are favorable to them. They'll need someone like that to be their liaison with legislature."

A government relations officer has a long job description. They're often responsible for raising public awareness by responding to questions from the public and politicians; lobbying other non-governmental organizations to widen support for their organizations; and advising government and non-governmental agencies alike -- often working for expert groups on issues like health-care funding.

They also sometimes spur media coverage by writing editorials and press releases. In this way, they gain positive attention from the public -- attention that politicians are bound to notice.

"They'll certainly deal with the media to affect public opinion," says Burden. "If the public has a favorable image of your organization and members of Congress know that, then they're not likely to cut the funding for it. So you can imagine how, for instance, PBS would have government relations people working to ensure there's funding for their television programs.

"To do that, they would be trying to influence the public through the media. They would have spokespeople, press conferences, and press releases. That way, members of Congress would know the public likes PBS, and conclude that we better not cut it or we might lose our jobs. That's called outside lobbying. Inside lobbying involves more haggling with politicians one on one, which straight lobbyists are more likely to engage in."

Despite the distinctions, the roles of government relations officers and lobbyists often overlap.

"There are a number of different kinds of lobbying and lobbyists, but the one thing we have in common is that we're all hired by some organization to appeal for their interests," says Stephen Kafoury, a lobbyist who runs his own firm in Portland, Oregon.

"There are two ways to lobby. First there's direct advocacy, where I would go to a legislator and explain to them in person what the bill is that I'm introducing and ask for their support on it," says Kafoury.

"Second, there's indirect advocacy, where I don't just do lobbying myself, but also get the members of my clients' organizations to write letters or go visit or make phone calls and explain how certain bills would affect them. So I organize that."

Government relations officers spend more time out meeting with clients and legislators than at their desks. Most spend the annual legislature session -- the few months of the year when bills are debated and passed into law -- camped out in the state capitol. Depending on their client's profile, they could often travel to the national capitol to meet with federal politicians.

"The most productive time is spent outside the office," says Cynthia Wilbanks, vice-president for government relations at the University of Michigan. "It's an externally focused job and it often requires travel to the state capitol, or to Washington, D.C., or it may be just a few miles down the road to a county official's office."

In the months of the year when legislation isn't being passed, government relations officers are busy networking with clients and building relationships with politicians in their home constituencies.

"In between legislative sessions, we spend time in our office, working and preparing, spending time visiting with our clients, getting to know them better," says Kafoury. "And we spend time visiting with legislators in their hometowns, getting to know them, too."

Government relations officers keep varied hours, which often go beyond 9 to 5.

"When you are externally focused, you're tied to a schedule that is not of your own making," says Wilbanks. "So the days tend to be long and you're often juggling a lot of priorities."

There are no special physical requirements involved in being a government relations officer. People with physical disabilities should have no difficulty doing this job, says John Tomlinson, who lobbies for Mississippi State University. "There are many people with physical disabilities that lobby. You just have to be alert and able to follow what's going on."

At a Glance

Build relationships between organizations and different levels of government

  • They often work for organizations with special public or private interests
  • They can spur media attention by writing editorials and press releases
  • They may be employed by universities, nonprofit groups or corporations to influence legislation