Toot Your Horn?

Federal agencies struggle to promote their work without crossing the line into propaganda.

If federal managers want taxpayers to appreciate the work their agencies do, don't they need to publicize it? Ever since the Agriculture Department's Office of Public Roads tried to hire someone to do just that in 1913, publicity has been a dirty word in government agencies. When New York Rep. Frederick Gillett read about the office's plans to hire a "publicity expert" in The New York Times, he raised a ruckus and easily convinced Congress to ban the employment of such specialists in federal agencies. Since then, Congress routinely includes provisions in appropriations bills and other legislation reminding federal managers to avoid anything that smacks of propaganda-with the implicit threat that their funding could suffer if they get carried away with PR.

Lawmakers balked at an agency's PR efforts as recently as December 2009, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested that her department's employees responded well to the failed "underwear terrorist" incident aboard a Christmas airliner flight. People did not want to hear that "the system worked," as Napolitano described the response phase. They wanted to hear how the detection and prevention phases failed and what would be done to fix them. Napolitano was forced to assure Congress and the public that she did see problems in the system.

"Government public relations encompasses the worst of both worlds: American culture's disdain for bureaucrats and public relations," says Mordecai Lee, a governmental affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Government Public Relations: A Reader (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2008). "Avoiding criticism is an absolutely rational behavior pattern in large organizations."

Indeed, how many times have federal managers fretted to employees that they don't want to end up on the front page of The Washington Post? Brooke Fisher Liu, an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Maryland, has studied the differences between PR in the private and public sectors extensively. The most significant differences are the larger influence of politics and the bigger impact of legal restraints in the public sector, according to a 2008 survey of 976 government and corporate PR professionals she conducted. "Government communicators are more restricted in how they perform their jobs," Liu and two other scholars wrote in a paper describing their findings.

That said, Liu discovered that government communicators generally are positive about their bosses' support for PR efforts. "The widely held assumption that most government managers do not value or have an aversion to PR is a perception rather than reality," she says. She points to the government's efforts to get out information about the H1N1 flu as a recent success story, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health and Human Services Department drawing kudos for their campaign across all forms of media, including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, to educate the public about how to prevent and cope with the spread of the virus.

For his part, Lee notes that the Internal Revenue Service was smart to send out information notices to the public in advance of the 2008 economic stimulus checks that were issued midyear. The notices were not required, but they helped taxpayers understand the program and plan ahead for the arrival of their checks. Another example comes from Minnesota, where the state department of transportation responded to the high public interest in the replacement of the collapsed I-35W bridge with the Sidewalk Superintendent program. Nearly 5,000 people took the guided tours to see how their tax dollars were being spent on the project. Interested taxpayers also could take a virtual tour online that explained in deep detail how the replacement bridge would prevent a repeat of the August 2007 collapse that killed 13 people.

In all three cases, the CDC and HHS, the IRS and the Minnesota Department of Transportation avoided the cardinal sin of government PR: using public outreach to look good. Instead, their efforts were all about getting information related to the core missions of the agencies out to the public. "Always have a rationale for the communication that is not related to 'looking good,' " Lee advises. "The purpose of the communication is to fulfill the legal duty of the agency or for pragmatic purposes of accomplishing the mission of the agency. The rest will take care of itself. If the effect of the communication is to help improve the public's opinion of the agency, well, that's a side product that was not the intent of the communication."

Show, don't tell, is a simple way to approach federal PR. The advent of ways for agencies to communicate directly with the public via the Internet, such as Twitter and Facebook, provides even more opportunities to show taxpayers what agencies are doing rather than trying to tell people how great agencies are.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.