PR Training

News in an ‘Infotainment’ Media Environment

Following the alleged FEMA press incident in October 2007, I assumed responsibility that led to very harsh personal and professional consequences. That event taught me much about leadership, which I was familiar with, having commanded ships in the Coast Guard and served as chief of Coast Guard Public Affairs. Equally important, it affirmed for me how the media landscape has changed so dramatically in the nearly 20 years that I have been a communication professional.

The fact that the event was characterized as a “fake” news conference by the media, with the obvious intent to manipulate and deceive rather than a “botched” press conference where errors in timing and judgment were compounded, revealed much about how those who reported the story approach their discipline. 

I absolutely do not condone what happened — and I was surprised when the event unfolded as it did. However, nothing presented by the official in the press briefing was inaccurate or untrue. In permitting the political pressure from those above to “fill the news window” about government activities, mistakes were made by well-intended staff. 

This incident is relevant because it speaks directly to the issue of trust. In a mass media environment that appears to value entertainment more than substance, how do organizations communicate effectively? How do organizations build and maintain trust with those who matter most if the traditional paradigm of delivering critical and urgent information through the mass media no longer works?

Organizations must not only perform well today, they must also communicate well. I believe effective communication programs are built on people, policies, planning and platforms. How these are developed and implemented can facilitate delivering and receiving information directly, quickly and transparently. And these are key to building trust with stakeholders. 

By John P. “Pat” Philbin, Ph.D., APR, Senior Vice President, PIER Systems, Inc. Pat has nearly 25 years experience in strategic communication; government, congressional and public affairs; organizational/business development; and innovative leadership with top-level, senior government officials and company executives, including crisis communication, media relations, marketing communications, brand management, government relations and strategic planning. Pat most recently served as the Director, Office of External Affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He also oversaw the Employee Communications Program as well as the Private Sector Office. Prior to joining FEMA, Pat worked for Anteon/General Dynamics Information Technology as a Technical Director where he served as a consultant in strategic communication to the Department of Defense’s Business Transformation Agency directing and assisting in communication efforts to Capitol Hill, the Government Accountability Office and the general public. Pat also served as the Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Communications for a private security firm.

Join Philbin for When Press Conferences Go Wrong: Lessons Learned About Today’s Media/Political Environment at the PRSA 2008 International Conference: The Point of Connection on Sunday, October 26 in Detroit, MI!

5 Comments

  • Pat; I am very interested in your four aspects of an effective communications program. I would love a post about the people, policies, planning and platform idea. I am also interested in your perspective as it has evolved over the last year. I will definitely attend this session.

  • Kami,

    The people-policies-platform model was best articulated by Gerald Baron in his book, Now is Too Late2 (2006) and I have come to appreciate the value of planning throughout my career. In his book, Gerald argued that “there are three critical elements in response to a public issue or news worthy incident: people, policies and technology” (p. 19).

    Gerald simply codified what my Coast Guard experience reflected. The organization’s communication policy was based on a fundamental principle: You have a responsibility and duty to share information except under four very specific circumstances. Information could only be withheld if it violated Security, Accuracy, Privacy or Propriety (SAPP, as we knew it). Absent one of these elements, there is a “bias to communicate” in the Coast Guard, which is one of the reasons it is so highly regarded.

    The “SAPP” guidance was complimented by one additional piece of communication policy: If you own it or have responsibility for it, you are authorized to speak publicly for the organization about it.

    The other area that proves invaluable in an organization like the Coast Guard is the notion that everyone may serve as a spokesperson providing they adhere to the above mentioned policies. So, I made sure that everyone who came into the organization was provided training on the organization’s communication policies and procedures, and offered practical, hands-on training/experience in conducting media interviews.

    I suspect that this approach to managing communication in an organization would be perceived with a great deal of skepticism by many; however, it forces organizations to do the right thing, which is reinforced by a high degree of transparency so that those who might doubt the official spokespeople can verify the reality for themselves. When communication managers cease focusing on controlling the message through gatekeepers and invest energy in ensuring that an organization is doing the right things well, terrific things happen…but only if you have created the right policies and plans to communicate well.

    Hope this helps amplify my initial post.

    Best,

    Pat

  • I think there’s one other factor here and that is the extreme mistrust people have for anything that comes out of DC. Those inside the beltway are accustomed to coalition groups, lobbying, image, etc. that it’s normal for them. It’s not normal for the rest of the country. I have friends in DC and what they consider “just part of business” sometimes leaves me with my jaw dropped. They aren’t unethical, they are just used to different conditions. There *is* a beltway mentality.

    So one person’s filling the chairs and getting the questions answered becomes another person’s “fake news conference.” Unfortunately, everyone in DC at one time or another needs to be prepared to have his or her motivations questioned. Trust, indeed, is an issue.

    This has been a very interesting case to watch, thank you for your willingness to discuss it.

  • Jen,

    The cynicism that you refer to is an important issue–especially with issues that affect homeland security. If citizens don’t trust civil authorities nor the media, how should relevant information that might save lives and property be delivered?

    My own experience is that people increasingly want to learn from unfiltered sources because they understand at some level that a co-dependency has emerged between the media and the political structure, each with their own agendas.

    A very senior official at DHS was keen on suggesting that “perception is reality.” Well, if this the fundamental assumption that guides communication action in an organization, it is not the one I have practiced nor ascribe to throughout my career. Reality is reality, and transparency and focusing on organizational performance must take precedent because without these, communication efforts eventually will fail.

    DC needs more people with your “jaw-dropping” perspective.

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