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PSA: Carl Fillichio on “The Best Gig You Can Have”

Part of Understanding Government’s new Public Service Announcement series featuring federal employees and profiles of what they do

By Norman Kelley

You would expect a certain amount of spin from an interview with a Labor Department public affairs official about his work. However, Carl Fillichio truly likes what he does, so his aim is true.

Preferring to call his recent installment at the U. S. Dept. of Labor a “second go at the rodeo,” Carl Fillichio, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Labor for Public Affairs and Communications, is ebullient about his work and the mission of getting the department’s message out.

“The way I look at communications, it’s not just issuing press releases, or doing press conferences or doing a newsletter, it is events and speaking engagements, and all sorts of opportunities to get our message out. I have my finger in all that type of stuff.”

Previously a Clinton appointee who served under Labor secretaries Robert Reich and Alexis Hermann, Fillichio engages in the full panoply of media for the department. “It’s the best gig you can have, public service.”

Fillichio came to Washington from John Carroll University in the mid-eighties, a young man searching for something to do. He knew he wanted to write — and make a difference. After kicking around, looking for work, he found himself at a large public relations firm which geared itself towards social causes and marketing.

“I loved it,” he said, during a late October noontime conversation. “I was naturally curious, the basic trait of a reporter, but didn’t want to do that; however, I liked news, breaking news, and the news cycle. So, I just fell into public relations and really just loved it.”

When a bad economy years ago ended one PR job, Fillichio spent nine months freelancing. One of his assignments was for a construction labor union. That led to him doing more media relations, which led him to the attention of then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Reich was looking for someone familiar with low-wage labor issues who could help publicize problems in the fashion industry.

“I was part of the team that busted Kathie Lee Gifford [on the sweatshop scandal],” says Fillichio, with evident pride. “I had connections in the fashion industry; I knew the low-wage world; it was a perfect fit. The stars sort of aligned, and lo and behold, Secretary Reich was talking about sweatshops and bringing them back into public consciousness.”

Fillichio rode out the last two years of the Clinton administration’s first term with Reich and then continued at Labor under Secretary Alexis Herman. He also participated in the Bush administration transition when asked by the incoming president’s appointed labor secretary, Elaine Chao, to stay on for a few months.

“That was a great experience for me because I was one of the few politicos who got to see what the transition looked like — first from Reich to Herman, then intraparty, and then from Democrat to Republican.”

After that stint at Labor, Fillichio moved on to the Council on Excellence in Government, which was recently absorbed into the Partnership for Public Service. As part of his project management portfolio, he managed the “Innovations in American Government” award, in association with Harvard University, as well as overseeing “Public Service Recognition” week. He also did work on public perceptions of government and attracting young people to government service.

Fillichio has also spent time in the private sector, once working for Lehman Brothers, where he found it “more bureaucratic than the Dept. of Labor.” He says that the public perception of government as more bureaucratic than the private sector is not so much an eternal truth as evidence that “government does a bad job of marketing itself.”

“You can be entrepreneurial in government,” Fillichio said. “If you’re good, if you’re smart, if you’re a take-the-bull-by-the-horns type of person, you can get a lot done, have an interesting day and make a huge impact. The Recovery [program] didn’t just fall out the sky; someone had to think of it. How do you implement it?” Fillichio points out that government moved very quickly to stem the recession. Still, he thinks that the private sector “does a much better job at on-boarding, mentoring, and talent management.”

While he understands that his department is the “big game in town,” due to the uninspiring unemployment numbers, which now stands at 10.2 percent, he feels that nation’s economy, as whole, is doing better.

“While a lot people are looking at the Labor Dept. numbers, every economist will tell you this, the jobs indicator is the lagging indicator on the economy.” But explaining that to a public impatient for good news can be difficult, because complex matters cannot be explained in a sound bite. For that reason, Fillichio is concerned about the downsizing of the American media infrastructure, particularly newspapers.

“You have to go deeper,” said Fillichio. “Here’s what I worry about. There’s isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t get a call or an email from reporter who’s looking to make the move into PR, and the story is always the same: ‘I’m going to lose my beat, my paper is folding, there’s a new structure at my TV station.’’” But in a world where unemployment numbers top the headlines, Fillichio says,

there aren’t very many labor beat reporters any more. You have Steve Greenhouse at the New York Times and that’s basically it. Then there’s whoever has that [beat] at the AP or the Wall Street Journal. But there’s no longer any dean of labor reporting, like Frank Swoboda of the Washington Post . . . there used to be a cadre of reporters that covered us every day and knew the ins and outs of the department, ins and outs of our programs… Now you don’t get that full coverage. If I have a criticism, it is from a concern about the state of the news industry in general.

A man who believes that public service is a “higher calling,” Fillichio says that a rich career should still include the full gamut of the three sectors of professional experiences.

“In a rich, full career life,” Fillichio said, “you should have this gig for a while. I like to tell people that the definition of an interesting career is a platter of private sector, public sector, and non-profit, so that when you retire you have had a little bit of all it.”

5 Responses to “PSA: Carl Fillichio on “The Best Gig You Can Have””

  1. Claira Jennette:

    Sounds like a pretty cool guy!

    comment at 13. November 2009
  2. ara parseghian:

    Does Fillichio run the public affairs shop at Labor, or does he just free lance around from the Secretary’s office? A very good piece on his zeal for government service, I just didn’t get a good feel on where he fits into the hierarchy at Labor.

    comment at 11. February 2010
  3. Norman Kelley:

    Yes, Mr. Fillichio runs the shop, which includes: media relations, editorial and media services, enterprise communications (web & social media), speech writing, and internal employee communications.

    If you’re not sure of Fillichio’s status at the Dept of Labor, please see this:

    If you’re a political appointee, you tend to run the department to which you’ve been appointed, but no Mr. Fillichio does freelance at the department.

    comment at 12. February 2010
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