Saturday, July 28, 2012

Federal Communicators and the Media: Not So Easy

By Dannielle Blumenthal, Chair, FCN

Federal communicators are up against a wall of distrust. A late 2011 survey by the New York Times and CBS News found 90% disagreeing "always or most of the time" that "you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right." 

It's not clear how much of that mistrust is of civil servants versus politicians - in the same poll, 91% said didn't trust Congress. It is probably safe to assume that to the vast majority of Americans, there is little meaningful distinction although to those inside the Beltway those distinctions are huge.

It is against this backdrop that public information officers and public affairs officers manage reporters' inquiries. And not coincidentally, the level of mistrust between media and government is also very high.

A 2012 Society of Professional Journalists survey of 146 reporters found that despite most respondents' appreciation of PIOs quick response time and "positive working relationship" with them (70%), reporters "overwhelmingly agreed" that PIOs are a barrier to transparency. 


As reported in GovExec, journalists specifically cited practices that are typical of any public relations representative, such as getting interviews approved in advance, restricting access to employees, and monitoring interviews. 


The real question is whether government communicators are essentially PR representatives, accountable to make federal agencies and their leaders look good, or whether they are more like transparency facilitators and accountable to the public for the unvarnished truth. 

A number of journalist groups have protested PR-like practices on the part of federal communicators, insisting that they are the latter. As reiterated in a 2005 Congressional Research Service report for Congress, appropriated funds cannot be used for propaganda on domestic soil"Appropriations law “publicity and propaganda” clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda."

The issue of propaganda, and the role of the PIO, is complicated now more than ever for a few reasons.
  • Agencies are permitted to distribute propaganda overseas (this is traditional PR, a.k.a. diplomacy). In the age of mass social media a video posted on YouTube is as easily accessible overseas as it is domestically, so it is difficult to speak with two voices. 
  • From a communications best practices perspective, it's also challenging to produce pure information that people pay attention to. The line between "news" and "outreach" often blurs because one has to engage the viewer so as to get their attention for legitimate purposes.
  • Federal communicators' chain of command is normally not structured to promote transparency. If it were, PIOs would more likely serve within the Information Technology chain of command as knowledge management officers, and would be functionally close to Freedom of Information Act personnel but with a somewhat more expanded role (e.g. to explain the information that is being released and put some context around it.)
At GovExec, two federal communicators, including FCN Board Member and National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) Director of Professional Development John Verrico, weighed in. They noted that it's in everyone's best interest for reporters to get accurate information; PIOs therefore are not motivated to lie or shade the truth.

Nevertheless, the perception is there, bolstered by an environment of mistrust and institutional structures that give rise to doubts about veracity. Even the most dedicated and transparent PIO also faces some daunting challenges, as noted by a commenter at the NAGC blog discussing the survey:
  • The occasional dishonest PR practitioner who will shade a story rather than tell it objectively
  • The presumption of guilt on the part of the government or the PIO
  • Not having the full story internally
  • The complexity of the information makes it difficult to translate or simplify
  • Pending decisions will not be made in time for the reporter's deadline
So how should federal communicators best handle the media? In Verrico's view it basically comes down to establishing oneself as a credible partner and source of available information. Which makes sense if you consider that the PIO clearly is hampered by the limits above. David Grinberg offers a series of 10 useful tips as well. The Center for Association Leadership has a ton of advice in quick, bulleted format.

What's your take on the federal communicator-PIO relationship?

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