12 September 2011

True Life: DOJ Intern

Posted by Jill Olszewski under: Uncategorized .

I know you are all curious about a day in the life of a DOJ Public Affairs (OPA) Intern –so rather than leave you hanging, I thought I would take a few moments to not only explain OPA’s infrastructure but also discuss the one task that is essential to the office’s daily operation: responding to press inquiries.

The OPA, in case you were wondering, is home to twenty spokespersons, press assistants, speechwriters, and general support staff. Each spokesperson and press assistant is responsible for a division of and/or certain aspect of DOJ. For example, while the criminal division spokespersons handle inquiries that pertain to fraud, gang violence, and extraditions, the antitrust division spokesperson responds to inquiries that relate to mergers, acquisitions, and anticompetitive practices. Beyond the criminal and antitrust division press officers, the office is also home to the civil and tax, civil rights, environment and natural resources, and national security division spokespersons. Like their colleagues, they handle inquiries that relate to the endeavors and priorities of the DOJ divisions for whom they speak (Cue another shameless plug: for more information on the specific divisions, I encourage you to check out the DOJ website).

While interns are obviously unable to speak on behalf of the DOJ as spokespersons do, interns are responsible for having a general understanding of the cases and topics that members of the press may call about so that the media member’s inquiry will be relayed to the appropriate press officer. For example, if a reporter called about United States v. Microsoft, it would be the interns’ responsibility to know that the case is an antitrust matter that would be handled by the antitrust division spokesperson. Similarly, if a reporter called about U.S. v. Eli Lilly and Company, an intern, depending on the focus of the inquiry, would direct the call to criminal or civil division spokesperson as the case is both criminal and civil in nature.

All things considered, communicating with the news industry in a government press office is often an interesting experience. For one thing, you gain extensive knowledge of the numerous television and radio stations, and print publications that exist throughout the world. Last fall, for example, I could have never named the regional newspapers in New Jersey, Louisiana or Florida, the bureau locations of wire services like the Associated Press, or the online publications like Global Competition Review that focus primarily on antitrust issues. Furthermore, had I not spent part of my day communicating with members of the media, I would have never gained a baseline understanding of the issues and topics that the Department of Justice regularly handles. From fraud and the RICO Act, to the False Claims Act and the Department’s efforts to combat religious discrimination, the plethora of issues and cases that DOJ handles on a daily basis is nothing short of noteworthy.

Finally, as mentioned in my first post, you never know who will be at the end of the line. In some cases, a reporter may be looking for a copy of a complaint, or other corresponding court document that I am typically able to provide. In other instances, the media member may need to call another federal agency, or DOJ component, like the FBI, Bureau of Prisons, or U.S. Attorney’s Office. Ultimately however, regardless of the type of inquiry that OPA may receive, there is always something to learn from one’s interaction with a reporter – be it an issue that DOJ handles, or a lesson in work place professionalism.

In the end, while responding to, and relaying press inquiries in DOJ OPA may not always be glamorous, it does offer interns a valuable opportunity to not only familiarize themselves with the issues and goals of DOJ and the law, but also the chance to enhance one’s communication skills in a work environment. So for all of you future communications directors, press officers, and lawyers consider an internship in a government public affairs office, you never know what you will learn from even the most routine tasks!

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