Ethics Pulse of the Profession

Reporters Urge White House Transparency: The challenge is access to experts

Tension with the media is sometimes an unfortunate and unintentional aspect of public relations. PR and public affairs practitioners often face a delicate balancing act between providing accurate information in a timely manner to reporters and bloggers while managing confidential employer/client information. When a PR contact doesn’t return a call or email, however, it can look like stonewalling or withholding information.

When it comes to covering the White House and federal policy and regulations, the stakes for media and public affairs are high. President George W. Bush’s administration was often criticized for being the most secretive administration in history. With this background, President Barack Obama took office in 2009 promising to lead the most transparent administration in history.

But, transparency is not the same as access to information, government officials and scientific experts who can help interpret presidential decisions and administrative actions. To this end, President Obama has been criticized by the media for a myriad of offenses:

  • Limited access for photographers in favor of releasing official White House photos.
  • Justice Department reviewed private communications of Fox News reporter James Rosen to find a national security leak.
  • Justice Department secretly obtained AP phone records in an effort to find a government leak.
  • Administration denied or censored more Freedom of Information Act requests than it approved.
  • Politically-driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, Fukushima).

This last protestation was codified in a July 8 letter signed by 39 individuals representing media associations including the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Collegiate Press, Association of Opinion Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association, National Press Photographers Association, and The Poytner Institute. They argue that the Obama administration’s restrictions on press access to public affairs offices and government sources are a form of censorship.

Politico Magazine recently surveyed members of the White House press corps regarding their opinions on transparency. The resulting infographic narrative is an instructive take on the fourth estate’s view. For example:

When President Obama calls this the “most transparent administration in history,” my reaction is… “To groan. Depends on what your definition of ‘transparent’ is. This WH means it is putting its own version of pictures, video and readouts on its own website.” —Ann Compton, ABC News 

The primary take away from the letter and survey is two-fold.  First, journalists want – and need – access to experts to fulfill the role of media watchdog, the hallmark of a democratic government.  Government officials, both on the record and “leaked” information, deliver the news and provide analysis for interpreting complex policy issues. Public affairs officers are the facilitator between the media and sources – and sometimes are the source.  Like it or not, reporters need the public relations function.

Even when the news is bad, government has a responsibility to be accessible, factual and transparent.  In 2010, I had the good fortune of teaching a master class in political communications with former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. She was fond of telling students to “own your bad facts.” In other words, don’t try to bury the news but acknowledge the facts, and do your best to present a positive and compelling narrative.

Second, journalists want to be treated with respect. For five years, I taught a graduate course in media relations at the George Washington University and hosted reporters throughout the semester. I was dismayed that most all commented on the amount of profanity used by public affairs officers in the Obama administration.  Even my PR colleagues in the administration admit that cursing is common place and sometimes encouraged. A “pro tip” in the Politico survey states: “Come on. If you can’t deal with a White House official swearing at you, it’s probably time to head for the exits of the profession.”

I must admit that when working in the tech sector, casual cursing was permissible – and a boss once told me profanity was an acceptable way to prove I had authority and knowledge. However, this is unprofessional behavior. It may be cliché, but I’ve found that a little honey goes a lot further to getting what you need – be it photo placement, a correction to a news story, or a follow up interview.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the most recent criticisms in the journalists’ letter on CNN’s Reliable Sources defending the administration’s record of transparency. He also acknowledged the sometimes testy relationship with the press saying that if the press corps didn’t push for more access, that “is the day that they’re no longer doing their jobs.”

The media need sources and report on conflict. These are the realities of their link with public relations. The responsibility of a practitioner is to be responsive, truthful and facilitate access to expert sources. For PRSA members, that also means adhering to our code of ethics. Among its values and provisions are honesty, free flow of information, and enhancing the profession through respect. If we make a concerted effort every day to balance the sometimes competing needs of the press and business goals, we can take a step toward building stronger relationships with the media.

 

Tracy Schario, APR, is a member of PRSA’s Board of Directors and a past president of the National Capital Chapter. She has taught media relations at The George Washington University and speaks on media and PR strategy.

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