Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Opening remarks by John M. Donnelly
CQ Roll Call senior writer and chairman of the National Press Club's Press Freedom Committee
As a reporter, I am not partial, but I admit I'm biased on this issue in favor of as much openness and disclosure as possible and as few rules about who can talk to reporters--and how--as possible. I also recognize that public affairs has an indispensable job to do.
Having said that, I'd like to set the stage for tonight's discussion with a few words.
First, tonight's conversation is about the growing--and some say, harmful--role played by public affairs offices in the federal government. The complaints we hear from reporters are about widespread requirements that PAOs must be present during interviews, that questions be written in advance, and that only certain people can be made available to say certain things. What is arguably most chilling to the flow of information to the public are federal rules--as at the Pentagon--that REQUIRE employees to ONLY speak to reporters through official public affairs channels. The courts have backed up these rules. In a case called Garcetti v.Ceballos, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in 2006 that government employees do not have an unbridled First Amendment right to free speech when it comes to what they say about information pertaining to their public position.
In many agencies, federal rules merely encourage, but don't require, that employees speak in the framework of public affairs. But either way, the message seems to be that it's not good for your career to talk to a reporter "off line," even if the subject isn't classified or proprietary.
For example, the former NSA official turned whistleblower, Thomas Drake, said at a recent press club luncheon that when federal employees seeking to obtain or renew security clearances are interviewed by investigators, one of the questions asked--at least some of the time--is whether the employee has ever had unauthorized contact with a reporter. NOT unauthorized contact involving classified information, but ANY unauthorized contact. By merely asking that question in that context, they are sending the message--intentionally or not--that speaking to the press off line is forbidden and could even make you a security risk. The Manning and Snowden leaks have raised the temperature on this issue, particularly in security agencies. The no-leaks message was made in a hard core way in a June 2012 DoD document about the "insider threat" program obtained by McClatchy News: “Hammer this fact home...leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States." If that rule was enforced equally, there would be a lot of senior officials--in this administration and previous ones--who would be in a lot of trouble. But, of course, it's not enforced equally.
The net effect of all this is a real deterrent to people speaking with the press outside of official channels--which often HAS to happen for the truth to come out, truth that Americans need to know about.
However, let me be clear: We reporters appreciate public affairs offices--when they help, and they very, very often do. I don't know anyone who wants to do away with these offices. Even if they did want that, it ain't gonna happen. Most reporters understand it's the job of public affairs to make sure that an agency's point of view is expressed coherently, that everyone is on the same page, that rogue voices are not confused with official policy.
I like what the Pentagon's "statement of principles" about relations with the media says:
Public affairs officers, should "act as liaisons, but should not interfere with the reporting process."
We'd probably all agree with that. The rub is about what constitutes interference. I hope we find some common ground here tonight.
Monday, August 12, 2013
National Association of Government Communicators
Reporters and PAOs have the same goal -- Get information to the public.
The government needs media to help us communicate to the public
· Reach general public or specific sectors
· Be trusted translator
· Your readers/audience trusts you to provide unbiased report
Trusted relationships are important.
· Trusted relationships go both ways
o Media needs to trust PAOs are providing complete, accurate info
o PAOs need to trust media will use info correctly, in good faith, in context,
Decades ago there were more beat reporters
· Not just government beat, but specific topical experts who understood history & technical issues
Now, more general assignment reporters
· Don’t have history, except what can be quickly researched
· Make assumptions
· Don’t have time to learn what things really mean or in-depth technical details
· Education is needed to fill these gaps
Role of PAO – facilitate flow of information
· Tell you what you don’t know
· Help you find information you need
· Explain complex information and translate jargon
· Find subject matter expert (SME) with accurate/complete information
· Many SMEs are micro-focused
· They may be experts in their field, but may not necessarily know larger policy or implementation strategy
· PAOs usually know better who the SMEs are on a topic that can best explain it
· SMEs frequently are afraid of media – heard stories of misquotes or info taken out of context,
· SMEs usually want PAO support as a safety net
· Spend more time internally advocating for media, convincing SMEs it is okay to talk
· Help keep SME focused
· Elaborate or provide context
· Follow up on interviews to provide additional info as needed
· Ensure media has correct info
· Trained to the maxim: Maximum Disclosure/Minimum Delay
o Within the boundaries of SAPP (security, accuracy, policy, and propriety)
Advice to press – trust is mutual!
· Don’t hide your agenda – if we know what your story is really about, we can better help you
· Don’t assume we are hiding something & don’t treat us like we are the bad guys
Just as journalists have a code of ethics, so do government PAOs.
(from the NAGC Code of Ethics) We believe:
· truth is inviolable and sacred
· providing public information is an essential civil service; and,
· the public-at-large and each citizen therein has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about their government.
We take these to heart and strive to uphold their spirit.
August 12, 2013
When we have these debates, the usual presumption is that reporters are universally good and competent, in service to the public, while press officers are obstacles, ill-informed boobs. Or, reporters are muckraking scoundrels looking to screw the government and embarrass public officials, while press officers are the only line of defense against the evil horde.
My experience finds a fairly normal bell-curve distribution of both reporters and press officers – some are awful, some are excellent, most are average or pretty good.
Here’s what I see as the biggest obstacles to better interaction on both the official and media sides:
· No trust. Too many press officers rely on email and never talk to reporters on the phone, let alone meet them in person. We don’t trust people we don’t know.
· Bad traditions. Too many press officers have learned that being good at their jobs means displaying a willingness to take a 2x4 to the head of a reporter.
· Ignorance. Too few press officers master really their issue areas. Some PAOs are dealing with very complex, dynamic issues, but never invest their time and energy to learn.
· Fear. There remains a bias against pushing out bad news (in government and the private sector).
· Ignorance. Too many reporters are too busy to master their subject areas – turnover and beat jumping makes it incredibly difficult for reporters to really learn the subject areas on which they report. (And they’re so young!)
· Speed. More than ever, there’s a “publish first” bias. The speed of reporting today means it’s ok to report less than fully reported stories, and across an array of platforms (digital and broadcast), over the course of a day.
· What is news? The balance between straight news and analysis and opinion has shifted dramatically. Opinion used to be found on the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspapers. Today it’s everywhere – as “news analysis” on news pages or sites, on blogs, and even as expressed by reporters on Twitter.
· Bad traditions. Some common media practices inspire well-deserved ire. The 4:30pm phone call looking for “reaction” to a story already written and about to be published is a pretty good reason for public officials and press officers to harbor ill will toward the media.
· Conflict makes for great news. In the midst of an Administration policy development process, the nature of news reporting will always turn normal policy debates/study/deliberation into disputes/fights/dissention -- and the inevitable search for “winners” and “losers”. This is unhealthy and generally leads to bad policy development -- but it makes for really great news stories!!!
When good, competent press officers are dealing with good, competent reporters, these relationships are healthy and very effective and productive for everyone. But even in those cases, rules are necessary to help reporters and protect officials.
Some reasons why rules are necessary:
1. Asymmetric talents: most government officials have very little or no experience talking to reporters. Most reporters are pretty good at their crafts – most have done nothing else, and some in Washington are the very best in the world.
2. Asymmetric information: reporters know who else they’ve spoke to, and what other officials have said. They have a sense of the broader context for a story. Many times officials are working in hives or silos.
* The only way to deal with these asymmetries is to have some kind of traffic cop – in this case, it’s usually a press officer.
Two more thoughts:
· No reporter should ever be punished for going around the press office. Reporters shouldn’t be rewarded, either, but they definitely shouldn’t be punished. Rules are for staff, not reporters. Reporters have a duty to try to develop sources, dig for information, ask questions, and develop sources. That’s what they do.
· Press officers have an obligation to know their subject areas, to educate reporters, to develop a trust relationship with reporters, to prepare and train public officials to be better communicators, and to help reporters develop useful sources. Rather than restricting access, press officers should instead overwhelm reporters with access.
Blog with some updates:
Website with examples from around the country
NAGC -- http://www.nagconline.org/
NAGC Code of Ethics -- http://www.nagconline.org/AboutNAGC/CodeEthics.asp
SPJ Code of Ethics -- http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp?mobile=no
By Kathryn Foxhall
Not so long ago reporters walked the halls of agencies, and in a unique, critically needed graduate school, they talked to and got to know staff.
Got stories, perspectives, and education fluidly.
Just like this was the United States or something.
But over the last 20 years leaders have created this surge of blocking reporters from communicating to staff unless they are tracked and/ or monitored by the public affairs officers: the public relations controllers.
It is massive, pernicious censorship that’s now a cultural norm. No matter what they know, employees are prohibited from ever communicating with us without guards working at the behest of the bosses and the political structure.
It’s people in power stopping the flow of information to the public according to their own ideas and desires.
How can the United States prohibit people from speaking to each other without reporting to the authorities?
Journalists: why are we so buffaloed? This is not some inviolate way of life. It’s just a mean power grab that officials started pouring resources into relatively recently.
The impact is drastic. I estimate for many specialized reporters, at least, communication with staff is down 90 percent.
Never doubt the rotting, debilitating effect of silencing people.
The grave diggers at Arlington Cemetery knew about the jumbled graves for years. Janitors at Penn State knew about the child abuse for years.
So, what all don’t we know now?
For one thing, in public, FDA says Congress has not given the agency all it requested for monitoring the skyrocketing pharmaceutical imports. Forty percent of drugs now come from overseas.
We urgently need reporters talking to FDA people in the policy jobs and in the front line inspecting jobs away.
Regularly, not just on big investigations.
Does the import situation keep FDA staff people up at night? Are we in pre-disaster mode, waiting for bodies to show up before we get serious? Or not? What would staff say away from the guards?
It’s something because it always is.
It is unethical and inhumane to chill or confine information gathering.
With millions of people silenced in thousands of public and private workplaces of various moral persuasions, reporters cannot hope 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 engraining it for the future.
A warning about compromises: In our weakened state some reporters say, “I will go through the PAO controls if they will just let me through without the delays, the monitoring, the outright blockages,” which have become so stunningly aggressive.
But that’s a sell-out of free speech. We will be passing on sterilized stories, muddling public understanding while lending power to an agency or political administration. And we, ourselves, reporters, won’t see the difference.
Finally, a question: why don’t we instead have tracking and monitoring of all the communications of all the agency leadership?
Sunday, August 11, 2013
by Linda Peterson
chair, Society of Professional Journalists
Freedom of Information Committee
chair, Society of Professional Journalists
Freedom of Information Committee
Carolyn and Kathryn have done a great job covering what’s going on at a federal level, but this problem is not trickling, but pouring down to the states and to local communities across the country.
Back in the states, we don’t like to believe that it all begins in Washington. But sometimes it’s true. Like in this case.
These policies may have begun here, but they’ve found their way down to the smallest communities in this nation. As the managing editor of a group of 8 community papers in the Salt Lake City suburbs, I see the same policies too often in my neck of the woods.
I don’t know if it’s because they like to follow Big Brother, or because they figure “Well, they’re getting away with it in Washington; why can’t we here?” but some of the smallest cities in the nation now have their own PAOs or people who serve that function as a part of their jobs.
It’s crazy when the feds stonewall you, but it’s even crazier when the PAO of a city of 10,000 does it.
After all, why would the city be so invested in a $100,000 road repair that they make you go through a PAO to get information about the project? And what does a PAO know about road base, correct temperatures and conditions for laying it down, exactly where the work is being done and how long it’s going to take? Nothing! So, almost everything you ask for you get secondhand, coming from the mouth of someone who knows almost nothing about the information you’re trying to get to your readers.
Information that is really important to the people who live on that street and to others who drive on it.
And it’s even crazier when the PAO insists on being present at the interview with the engineer. If the engineer misspeaks would the PAO even know anyway? But that’s what happens sometimes.
I work with several PAOs who understand that, who get out of the way so I can get to the people who have the information. They understand that government isn’t a private entity, that it must be transparent.
But many don’t. They see their job as managing the information and the reporters.
This issue is not reporters whining that PAOs are making their job harder. It actually would be a whole lot easier just to take what the PAO tells you and write it as fact.
Maybe that’s why a lot of city officials and PAOs tell me: “None of the other media outlets are complaining about this. You’re the only one. They’re all just fine talking just to the PAO.”
That’s why my papers are better, I tell them. We’re not necessarily better writers, but we have better, more detailed information and therefore, our stories are better.
Although I’m not a lawyer, I believe my readers deserve and are expecting from me, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Or as close to it as I can get.
That’s why I wouldn’t give in to the mayor and PAO who asked me to hire a reporter candidate that they “liked more, who we found out later was an employee of the PR firm that was doing a branding campaign for that city.
I can’t get the truth or anywhere near the whole truth when I have to email the PAO a list of questions for the employee I need to talk to and have the PIO (not the employee) respond to those questions by email – like one city expected me to do.
I don’t think my reporters should, as a “professional courtesy,” call and tell a city’s PAO what stories she’s working on that week – like another city’s PAO expected them to do.
There are many instances like these happening on a daily basis across our country. Stories like this that are still shocking or ridiculous on a local level but that are commonplace on a federal level. “That’s just the way it is,” many reporters say. “Deal with it” is what many government officials say.
But why should we? Why shouldn’t we push for more? Why shouldn’t we be able to talk directly to those who do the everyday tasks of taking care of our health, safety and welfare?
We live in the Information Age. The old adage could easily be changed to “Information is power,” and whoever has the information has the power. I believe in the case of government, the public should have that power, and that journalists are the conduit for that power.
In the past, government viewed interaction with the media as a necessary evil; they didn’t want to do it but it was expected of them.
As such, reporters could dig into the stories they covered, find the facts, work to uncover the details that made a difference to their readers.
They could talk directly to elected officials, those accountable individuals who their readers voted for – or not – who would answer to them.
Nobody ever voted for a PAO. No PAO, as yet, has a formal vote on city, state or federal business – so why does government think the public should be fine hearing from them all the time, instead of the people they elected?
And governments and PAOs often end up with ridiculous consequences, as in the situation this spring when a city parks and rec. person refused to give me the time of the Easter egg hunt because they had been instructed not to talk to me. I almost got the time wrong – which would’ve meant hundreds of irate parents and crying kids descending on City Hall because they missed the festivities. And all because a PAO got over-enthusiastic.
This silly example aside, there’s all kinds of information that the public needs to know and should know that never makes it past the PAOs.
Whether it’s the best of intentions, ignorance of what facts matter, job security or something else, it doesn’t matter.
My reporters and I are always going to try to go around the PAO to get to the people with the information because often, PAOs don’t have it or enough of it. It’s often a very difficult task that takes time and persistence – a task that should never have to be in the first place – but often the only way to get to the information.
Sometimes, even with all of our efforts, the PAO blockades are just too effective. We can’t get through and even the best of us have to go with the official line and the scraps we can dig up.
It’s not the complete story – it’s the best we can do. But sometimes, as we all know, the official story isn’t the real story. There were no weapons of mass destruction ever found in Iraq.
But we can’t give up, we can’t give in. This is too important.
Whatever PAOs do, we can’t stop searching got the truth.
That’s what my readers expect. And in this, the United States of America, Land of the Free, that’s what they’re going to get.
But before long, if things don’t change, we may be the only ones out there doing it.
“Singing with one voice”
Government doesn’t just make policy. It reaches into every area of our lives: our jobs, our homes, our schools, even our bedrooms. We need to know and understand what it’s doing and why. Most of the time that information doesn’t come from a PAO.
People have rights, government doesn’t.
Encouraging and requiring – there’s essentially no difference. Govt. employees are expected to be part of the funnel. Most of the time they’re usually not going to stick their necks out and incur the wrath of their bosses.
The problem is the EXPECTATION that they go through the PAOs.
By Carolyn S. Carlson, Ph.D.
Kennesaw State University
August 12, 2013
I am going to tell you about two surveys I conducted last year that are relevant to the topic we are discussing tonight. First I surveyed reporters who cover federal agencies in Washington, and I got 146 respondents, for a margin of error of about 7 percent. Then I surveyed current and former members of the National Association of Government Communicators and got 154 responses, for a margin of error of 4.3 percent.
My questions focused on the interviewing process.
Pre-Approval and Routing
• 98 percent of Public Affairs Offices believe they have a better idea than reporters about who would be the best person to give an interview on a given topic.
• Three-quarters of journalists report they have to get approval from PAOs before interviewing an agency employee.
• Seven out of 10 reporters say their requests for interviews are forwarded to PAOs for selective routing to whomever they suggest.
• About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit them from interviewing altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.
• Two-thirds of PAOs say they feel justified in refusing to grant an interview when the agency’s security is threatened or it might reveal damaging information.
• Three-fourths of PAOs know that journalists attempt to “go around” them to contact staff members directly. However, nine out of ten say their staff knows and will refer reporter to the PAO when they have been contacted directly .
• More than half of the reporters admit that they tried to circumvent the public affairs office at least some of the time.
• For the majority of PAOs, there are no reporters that they trust enough to contact staff directly without having to go through the public affairs office. Only about a third of PAOs said they had reporters they gave free rein to contact staff directly, mostly long-time beat reporters.
• In contrast, 40 percent of the PAOs say there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to at all due to problems with their stories in the past.
• In fact, 14 percent reported that there were entire media outlets they prohibited staff from talking to because of problems with their stories.
• Two thirds of PAOs feel it is necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with members of their agency's staff.
• Meanwhile, 85 percent of reporters say they get monitored at least some of the time – it breaks down a third some of the time, a third most of the time and 16 percent all of the time.
• Three-fourths of PAOs said they agreed that monitoring interviews was a good way to make sure their agency’s staff was quoted correctly in the stories.
• Almost 40 percent of PAOs say they use their tapes and notes from the interviews they monitor to dispute misquotes.
• But only 17 percent said they required reporters to review their quotes with them before publication. Fully three-fourths of the PAOs said they did not require pre-publication review.
Reporters’ View On PAO Control
• Seven out of 10 reporters agreed with the statement: “I consider government agency controls over who I interview a form of censorship.”
• About 85 percent of the journalists agreed with the statement that “The public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”
• Two-thirds of PAOs “believe that controlling media coverage of the agency is a very important part of protecting the agency's reputation”
• Virtually all PAOs agree their “job is to make sure accurate, positive information from my agency is conveyed to the public”.
So that’s where the issue stands.
Here are links to the original survey reports:
On August 12, 2013, five journalists and public affairs officers participated in a panel discussion before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to debate whether federal public-affairs offices hinder more than help the cause of open government.
The panel was moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the NPC Press Freedom Committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call, and the group included:
- Tony Fratto - managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a strategic communications and crisis management consultancy; an on-air contributor on the CNBC Business News Network; formerly deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and principal deputy press secretary
- John Verrico - president-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
- Linda Petersen - managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; freedom of information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
- Carolyn Carlson - former AP reporter; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
- Kathryn Foxhall – a freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue.
This blog includes some opening statements and other information.