Getting the Word Out

Everybody knows the federal government doesn't get much in the way of positive press coverage. But is the situation entirely the fault of the news media?

Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary, doesn't think so. In a recent issue of The Washington Monthly, McCurry argues that "government often falls short in providing those facts that are necessary for educated debate in our democracy."

For starters, says McCurry, most federal organizations do a lousy job of coping with bad news. Too often, the initial reaction of a government spokesperson to a scandal or disaster is stunned disbelief or stammered denials. That damages their credibility from the moment a story hits.

On the other hand, McCurry notes, on the rare occasions when good news actually gets reported, federal officials often get addicted to the praise and end up taking credit for the same story over and over.

A case in point is the 1995 story about a survey showing that the Social Security Administration's 800-number customer service line was rated tops in the country. After this tale was repeated endlessly by Vice President Al Gore and others in the reinventing government movement, it started to seem as if there weren't any other success stories to talk about--exactly the opposite of the intended message.

McCurry identifies a series of other factors that make it difficult for agencies to get their stories out to the public. The White House, he admits, often steals the good news. Cabinet officials are ordered to amplify the messages the President sends every day, but rarely does the White House try to build interest in stories that originate in the bureaucracy. Government needs a systematic, interagency effort to get the word out about what's happening in the agencies, McCurry argues.

McCurry also notes that there are few rewards in government for being good at communicating with the public. "In fact, those pegged as good press officers often get stuck in the role," he says. What's more, in the politically sensitive world of press communications, the natural distrust between career civil servants and political appointees can be particularly strong.

Many public affairs officers in government say the main problem is a lack of resources. They argue that in an age of downsizing--and especially, of cutbacks in "overhead" functions in agency headquarters--there are simply fewer public affairs people to get the message out. As a result, it's difficult to be proactive about getting good stories about government out to the media. The remaining press officers in government have to spend most of their time in response mode, dealing with the latest crisis.

At a recent conference of press officers at the Defense Logistics Agency, several public affairs representatives lamented their difficulties in dealing with the media during last spring's military action in Kosovo. There were plenty of good stories to tell about the way DLA and other Defense organizations swung into action to make sure that troops had adequate supplies of everything from fuel to food.

But rather than pushing such stories, the press folks argued, they had to spend most of their time knocking down rumors. For example, shortly after the conflict started, The New York Post reported that DLA had put in an order for a large shipment of Purple Hearts. That led to more than 50 inquiries from reporters who wanted to know if the story was accurate and could be interpreted as an indication that a ground war was imminent.

The problem with federal press offices is not just one of numbers, however. In fact, according to figures provided by the Office of Personnel Management, the public affairs ranks have not thinned dramatically in recent years. The number of employees in the public affairs occupational series in government went from 4,438 in 1993 to 4,262 in 1997. That's only a 4 percent reduction during a period when overall cuts in the federal workforce were much steeper.

Whether or not the government has an adequate number of press officers, the fact is that too many of them do a poor job of getting out ahead of stories.

Take, for example, those not-infrequent occurrences when a reporter is leaked an advance copy of a General Accounting Office report, inspector general investigation, or other piece of damaging information. When asked for a reaction, agencies often simply say they have policies against responding to unpublished information. That may put them on the moral high ground, but it almost guarantees that when the story is published or broadcast, the agency will look bad. Under such circumstances, agencies ought to take their cue from the White House, sending out officials to give their side of the story to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis.

Of course, in some instances, agencies are legally prevented under the Privacy Act and other laws and regulations from discussing reports and allegations involving specific individuals. But even under such circumstances, they can at least make an effort to defend themselves and provide reporters with the broader context in which criticism should be understood.

In the absence of such efforts, agencies can almost guarantee they will continue to get one-sided treatment by the media.

Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government Executive.

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