Fighting Back on the Web

tshoop@govexec.com

When it comes to dealing with unfavorable press coverage, most federal agencies have followed the adage: "Never get into an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

Traditionally, agencies' options for responding to stories they believed were unfair or inaccurate were limited: Write a letter to the editor (which might or might not be published and almost certainly would be edited), call reporters at competing news outlets and try to get them to tell the agency's side of the story, or go over the reporter's head and try to convince his or her editor that the reporter blew the story-a tactic very likely to backfire.

Recently, however, agencies have found a powerful new weapon to tell their side of the story: their ownWeb sites.

Before you scoff that no agency could hope to take on this country's media giants, remember that some federal sites are among the most popular on the Web. Earlier this year, the online measurement firm Media Metrix reported that a dozen federal sites had more than 1 million visitors each in April. The Internal Revenue Service pages led the way, followed by the Commerce Department and U.S. Postal Service sites.

Savvy agencies are using popular areas of their sites to reach the public directly when they want to get their message out-or try to counter a story that's already been published elsewhere.

Here's one example. On June 2, The Washington Post ran a story by staff writer William Claiborne on the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs mismanaging assets held in trust for American Indians. The government has been responsible for thousands of trust accounts since 1887, when the United States began breaking up Indian reservations and allotting parcels of land to tribe members.

The story said BIA has been unable to reconcile millions of records on the lands it manages in trust, "despite periodic proddings from tribal leaders, federal courts and Congress." Claiborne quoted attorneys representing Indians as saying they might be owed as much as $10 billion. And, most poignantly, he told the story of Ripley Berryhill, a Muskogee Creek Indian in Oklahoma, who charged that BIA had sold the land that had been allotted to his grandmother in 1903 without distributing any of the proceeds to her heirs. Berryhill said he could be due $12 million to $15 million in royalties from oil pumped from beneath the land.

BIA officials were livid about claims in Claiborne's story that BIA itself was to blame for the problem with the trust accounts (agency officials say the real culprit is deliberate neglect of the accounts by Congress, the executive branch and the courts); that the agency would ultimately have to pay out billions of dollars; and that Berryhill had been cheated out of millions of dollars.

BIA chief Kevin Gover immediately wrote a letter to the Post saying Claiborne "could not have been more wrong." But then, as Federal Computer Week reported in its June 21 issue, BIA went a step further. It published its own response to the story on the Interior Department's Web site, which gets about 50,000 hits each day. For about a week, BIA's response was prominently linked on the Interior home page.

The response conceded that the Indian trust fund system "was broken from the moment it was imposed on the Indian people of the United States" and that it needed a thorough overhaul. But BIA said Claiborne's story was "flat wrong" and that agency officials were given no opportunity to respond specifically to Berryhill's charges.

They took that opportunity in their Web response, which cited court records from the Berryhill case showing that after Berryhill's grandmother died, her allotment was passed on to her six children. One of the children conveyed her interest to Ralph Oliphant, a non-Indian, who then tried to partition the property in 1948. But before he could do so, BIA stepped in, using a right Congress had granted it to purchase the property in trust for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, an officially recognized Oklahoma Indian tribe. In other words, the agency said, "BIA did the only thing it could do to prevent the loss of still more Indian land: It bought the property for the benefit of all the members of the tribe."

BIA spokesman Rex Hackler says the Web response was part of an effort by BIA officials to become more aggressive in defending their agency. "When there are unjust attacks, we are going to answer," he says. "We are not going to allow our employees to get tarred and feathered just because some PR flak thinks it moves his story."

The Web, Hackler says, provides a new option for fighting back. "It takes the filter away, and allows you to get to people quickly." While the Post didn't run Gover's letter until June 12-10 days after the initial story appeared-BIA was able to post its response on June 4.

BIA's employees-more than 90 percent of whom are Indians-apparently like the new approach. Hackler said that in the wake of the Web posting about the Post article, he got about a dozen e-mail messages from employees supporting the effort. "At long last, someone has responded with facts to the negative press about the BIA," one wrote. "It made my heart soar."

Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government
Executive.

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