Hacks vs. flacks

Do public affairs offices get in the way?

On Monday night, a panel of journalists and public relations experts gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to discuss the role of federal public affairs offices. While communications officers see themselves as useful intermediaries between the public and its government, many reporters regard them as obstructive bureaucrats stemming the flow of information.

John Donnelly, a reporter with Congressional Quarterly and Chair of the NPC’s Press Freedom Committee, moderated the panel.

“As a reporter, I should disclose that I’m biased in favor of as much openness and disclosure as possible, and as few rules as possible, about who can talk to reporters in the federal government, and how,” Donnelly said. Journalists have complained about widespread requirements that public affairs officers must be present during interviews, that questions be written in advance, and that only certain employees are available to say certain things, he said. Even more alarming are federal rules, such as those in place at the Pentagon, which require employees to only speak to reporters through official channels.

“The message seems to be that it’s not good for your career to talk to a reporter offline, even if the subject isn’t classified or proprietary,” he said. Yet “most reporters understand that it’s the job of public affairs to make sure that an agency’s point of view is expressed coherently, and that rogue voices are not confused with official policy.”

Carolyn Carlson, a former Associated Press reporter, shared the results of two surveys she conducted on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press. Ninety-eight percent of public affairs officers believe they have a better idea of who journalists should interview than reporters themselves, and three-quarters of journalists stated that they had to get a PAO’s approval before interviewing agency employees. Nearly 40 percent of PAOs admitted to banning specific reporters because of problems with their stories in the past. And while 85 percent of journalists said the public is not receiving the information it needs, 98 percent of PAOs feel their job is to ensure people get positive, accurate information about individual agencies.

Kathryn Foxhall, a freelance reporter, recalled the halcyon days when journalists talked freely with government staff, gaining their trust and writing solid stories. But over the past 20 years, government leaders have been using PAOs to monitor employee communication with the press. “It is massive, pernicious censorship that is now a cultural norm,” Foxhall said. “It’s people in power stopping the flow of information to the public according to their own ideas and desires,” and journalists ought not to be cowed by them. “Never doubt the rotting, debilitating effect of silencing people,” she cautioned. The gravediggers at Arlington Cemetery knew about the jumbled graves, and the janitors at Penn State knew about the child abuse long before news broke—current issues with the FDA and pharmaceutical imports are now similarly underreported.

“It is unethical and inhumane to chill or confine information gathering. With millions of people silenced in thousands of public and private workplaces,” she said, “reporters cannot hope that our skill and hard work are making up for this. The ethical burden is now right on journalists. We can fight this. Or we can be the integral partner in ingraining it for the future.”

Linda Petersen, managing editor of The Valley Journals of Salt Lake, argued that information is being obstructed in small towns too. “These policies, these ways of doing business of government, have not just trickled, but have poured down from the federal level to the state level, to the smallest communities in our country,” she said. It is ridiculous to transpose federal notions of homeland security onto small communities: Last spring, a parks and recreation officer refused to tell Petersen the time of a local Easter Egg hunt, because he had been instructed not to speak to the press. “We do have great PIOs [public information officers] that we work with, who understand that they are truly there to facilitate the flow of information. Not to control it, not to dam it, not to divert it.” But they are few and far between, she said. For the good of the public, “our mandate is to report the truth, not what the PIO tells us is the truth,” she said.

Other panelists were less pessimistic. Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush, defended PAOs by pointing out that there were prejudices on both sides: journalists who believed PAOs were deliberately obstructive, and communications officers who saw themselves as a defence against scandal-mongering. Technology has helped erode trust. “Technology is great and efficient,” he said, “but reporters and press officers don’t actually talk very much anymore.” So much communication is now via email, and the nuances of face-to-face conversations have been diminished.

Press officers have also confused intransigence with toughness in their dealings with the press, while journalists know less and less about their beats. “It is really, really rare to find really good reporters with the length of time on a beat it takes to master that beat,” Fratto said. Older, more experienced journalists, more expensive to hire than cub reporters, are exiting the business. Fratto argued that the rules covering government communication exist because of an “asymmetry in talent” (most officials aren’t accustomed to being interviewed) and an “asymmetry in knowledge” (official often work in silos, unaware of what other colleagues might have said). Journalists do need to have sources to whom they can turn, but they must not expect a completely open-door policy, he said.

John Verrico, president-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators, echoed Fratto’s concerns about trust. Both journalists and PAOs share the same goal: to communicate information to the public. “The government needs the media to help us in this process,” he said. “You need to be able to trust that we are giving you the complete and accurate information. And at the same time, we need to trust that you’re going to take that information, and you’re going to use it correctly and in good faith.” Public affairs officers provide indispensable technical and historical context that journalists on deadline often don’t have the time to research themselves. As for government officials, “they may be experts in their field, but they may not know how what it is they do in the lab, or on the street affects a larger policy,” he said. PAOs might “look like the bad guys, but we are in fact advocating on your behalf” to ensure “that you have every bit of information you need to write a complete story.”

With both journalists and public affairs officers trying to inform the public, what was needed, Donnelly concluded, was just a little more communication.

A summary of the presentations can be found here.

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , ,