Monday, August 12, 2013

Fratto National Press Club Presentation

Tony Fratto
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.  

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