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Policy or Communications? How to Choose

Will press or legislative backgrounds yield a chief-of-staff spot on Capitol Hill? (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

If “chief of staff” sits atop the apex of the congressional staffer pyramid, there are typically two expertise areas that lead to it: policy or communications. But how do you decide if you’re meant to be a legislative assistant or press secretary, which lead down distinct career paths? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I am currently a Staff Assistant/Legislative Correspondent wanting to take the next step up the Hill career advancement ladder and maybe become a Chief of Staff one day. I am also an institutionalist and like politics more than policy. That being said, no matter how much I analyze this, talk it over with friends, and seek advice, I cannot decide if I want to take the legislative staffer route or the communications staffer route. Though it may seem like a clear choice between night and day for some people, I have been able to dangle my feet in the waters of both and still cannot make a decision as to which way to go. The pros and cons of each seem to be about equal. I realize it is not unheard of for legislative staffers to switch to the communications side of things, but less so the other way around. Either way, I am bothered by the fact that I cannot get this matter settled in my head so that I can actually go about trying to advance along one of the two career paths at the only place I want to work, the United States Congress (just not my current office).
A . Goal-oriented, indeed. Hill Navigator can appreciate someone who knows they want to be on Capitol Hill and is already strategizing their way to the top of the ladder.  

You are correct: Both a policy route and communications route can lead to a chief of staff job, with a slight edge toward legislative directors becoming chiefs more often than communications directors (but both are possible and smart routes to take).  

The question, as you’ve wisely surmised, is which is the best route for you. You mention your back-of-the-envelope pro/con list is coming out equal. But which side is better suited to your talents, and which one do you have a stronger enthusiasm for doing? Remember, this is a job you’d have for years before becoming a chief of staff. Even the most ambitious staffers need significant experience (and opportunity) before taking the helm of a congressional office.  

So let’s revisit that list again, shall we? Some questions to consider.  

As a legislative staffer: Do you care about policy? Do you want to study the minutiae of an issue area, meet with groups connected to the issue, read Congressional Research Service reports, prepare briefing materials, go to the whip meetings and understand what leadership means when they say "martial law?” Further, is there an issue area you care about deeply — such as taxes, health care or education — where you could see yourself delving into the relevant committee work?  

Test your familiarity with an issue area you care about. Ask yourself if you know what the pending relevant legislative action items are right now.  

As a communications staffer: Do you care about media? Do you want to talk to reporters, research background on stories, prepare talking points, read and compile clips, write (and pitch) op-eds? Would you feel comfortable speaking on the record? Communications roles often overlap with the political side: Does politics interest you, and would you be willing to work on your boss’s re-election campaign if needed?  

Test your familiarity with communications. What was the last interview your boss did, and how did he or she feel it went?  

If you’re still drawing an even split between the two, ask a trusted colleague which they feel better reflects your own talents. And then take the time to truly get to know both fields better. You’ve had some opportunity to “dangle” your feet in both ponds. Now try taking a deeper dive.  

Follow several legislative issues. Set up CQ News Alerts . Volunteer to put together media clips or help with a press release. In time, your talents might shine through a bit brighter on one side of the communications/legislative divide.  

And remember, the best legislative staffers understand the importance of media in their work, and the best communications staffer have a strong understanding of the legislative process. If you’re going to be chief of staff, a good background in both worlds will go a long way.  

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