How We Got Here: Working in Public Sector Comms

June 8, 2021
By PRSA Board Member Shruti Sharma and Intern Meghan Moeller
How We Got Here: Working in Public Sector Comms

Have you ever considered a career in the public sector? PRSA-SV’s #FridayForum How We Got Here: Working in Public Sector Comms panelists provided key insights on a broad range of career opportunities the public sector has to offer and helped us understand how communications and public policy intertwine.

David Vossbrink, APR,  Communications Counsel and panel moderator, retired as communications director for the City of San Jose after a four-decade career in Bay Area local government. He currently provides communications consulting services to local public agencies and universities. He began his career as a community organizer with VISTA, where he worked to improve living conditions for residents of impoverished neighborhoods.

“I discovered the powerful impact that local government has on the quality of life, as well as its accessibility for participation and change through effective communications,” he said. “Public relations often drives policy and that’s where we can use the power of our work to make a real difference.”

Sean Webby, public communications officer, Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, has served in this role for a decade. Previously, he was a journalist for 25 years in New York City, Vermont, Connecticut and with the San Jose Mercury News, where he was twice named Northern California’s Investigative Reporter of the Year. In addition to working for the DA’s office, Sean lectures and teaches classes on media relations for law enforcement command staff throughout California.

Webby said when he first transitioned to the public sector, he wasn’t prepared for the competitive nature of the political environment. However, by working closely with his colleagues and becoming tough quickly, he began to like the rough-and-tumble aspect of his job. Webby explained that in his position, he must please both his boss and the individuals he’s impacting.  

“When you’re working for a leader who serves the public, you must find a way to serve the leader and the public at exactly the same time, with exactly the same quality,” Webby said.

Linh Hoang, communications manager, Valley Water, oversees marketing strategies, comms and media/PR activities for the South Bay’s principal water supply and flood control agency district. She’s been a public-sector communicator for nearly 15 years, previously with Valley Transportation Authority. Prior to moving into local government, Linh was a reporter, producer and editor for local broadcast news at KNTV and KLIV Radio in San Jose. Hoang told us that early in her career it was tough being young and female.

“It can be hard to understand whether you’re being second-guessed because you’re a woman or because of your age. But either way, you have to work through these stereotypes to become successful,” she said.

Hoang notes that in recent years, as the community becomes more diverse, it’s easier for women and people of color to obtain positions of power and vocalize their ideas. However, she also said that in the public sector, there is less room to have your own brand as a communicator; you have to represent the voice of the government agency.  

Carolina Camarena, communications director, City of San Jose, has served with the City of San Jose for nearly 25 years. She has led award-winning public information campaigns for several departments and programs, including Environmenl Services, Parks Recreation & Neighborhood Services and the Emergency Operations Center during the pandemic. Carolina currently leads citywide comms strategies for the City Manager’s Office.

Her first job after graduation was as a communications coordinator for Mayor Susan Hammer. Camarena thought it would be a good segue to becoming a lawyer in the future. However, she fell in love with working in public sector comms and decided to make this her career.

“To me, it’s really about improving the quality of life for all of our communities,” she said.

Camarena said that in the public sector, she has fewer resources than if she were working for a large company, but that this has made her more resourceful, relying on vendors and contractors to help get the job done. Camarena noted that being a native Spanish speaker makes it easier for her to work with Spanish publications and to reach Spanish-speaking-only people who might not know about scholarships and other opportunities.

You can replay the entire event from our PRSA Silicon Valley Facebook page. And be sure to join us on June 11th for a Clubhouse discussion moderated by Alex Hunter: “California Leavin” – Why Silicon Valley pros are moving to Nashville, Austin, Denver, Miami, and beyond. Find out what it’s like to work time zones away.

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