In a democratic society, the government’s job is to serve the people. The same can be said of the press. Of late, however, both pillars in the American experiment have fallen short of their raison d’etre.

The U.S. Congress seems unable to accomplish anything, aside from a sequester that cut funding from everything except the biggest deficit creators (Medicaid and Social Security). The U.S. media seems prone to report first and fact-check later, as CNN did last week when prematurely announcing arrests in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, which was followed soon after by other outlets citing CNN’s error as fact.

With serious professional failings like CNN’s, it’s no wonder some folks in government are hesitant to speak openly with the media. And yet, that government reticence to communicate with journalists is not perceived as cautious – it’s seen as secretive. This is a vicious circle, leading to a mess of misperception, inaccuracies and animosity. Meanwhile, the interested public is left to ponder whether their government and media hold any lingering relevance in challenging times.

When writing for Security Debrief and other publications, I sometimes wind up on the phone with DHS public affairs staff, and while I just want to talk about homeland, the man or woman on the line occasionally counts me among the would-be Woodward and Bernstein’s looking to catch the government with their hand in the cookie jar (doing so mostly to serve their own ego, rather than the public). Every so often, however, I find a kindred spirit genuinely interested in talking about the important work DHS does. I had the good fortune to meet a few of them at the recent National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) Communications School.

NAGC is a collection of local, tribal, state, and federal communicators, and in a town where there’s an association for everything, the 2013 conference in Arlington is worth writing home about. Here was a gathering of government public affairs officers and journalists having a frank and friendly conversation about how we (government and media) can do better.

All the Secretary’s Men (and Women)

The much-respected Rob Margetta of CQ Homeland Security noted that it has become harder to get government officials and subject matter experts on the phone, while adding, “stone-walling doesn’t work.” A decent journalist will always find another source, and more than that, saying “no” to an intrepid reporter only spurs them to ask, “why not?”

The NAGC conference included the results of a survey of more than 150 public information/affairs officers – “Mediated Access: Public Information Officers’ Perceptions of Media Control.” In the survey, a whopping 90 percent of survey respondents said their staff refers reporters to public affairs when contacted directly by reporters. If perception matched reality, journalism would be a barren place. News reports are littered with “unnamed sources” and “officials who requested not to be named because they are not authorized to speak with the media.” In as much as some reporters want to be the next “Woodstein,” some public employees like to play at Deep Throat.

DHS, however, can be a particularly tough nut to crack. The department deals with sensitive and “need-to-know” information, which precludes journalists from a fair amount of DHS detail. What is more, several DHS agencies come under frequent scrutiny, such as TSA, often painted in an unflattering pat-down-happy hue. Faced with potential media criticism, it is easier to circle the wagons than invite journalists in for a conversation.

To be fair, much of this is out of the hands of public affairs. The federal government is a hierarchy, and tight lips start from the top down. And it is not limited to interactions with the media. Fellow Security Debrief contributor Rich Cooper recently wrote about how DHS overall has become increasingly loath to interact with the private sector, as well as the general public, writing:

“Aside from the occasional photo op, the customary speech laden with rhetoric about ‘our partners in the private sector, blah, blah, blah,’ and of course the obligatory platitudes that we see in news releases and congressional testimony, the level of engagement with people outside the red brick walls of the DHS complex is anemic, if not nearly extinct.”

Cooper attributes this in part to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s “efficiency initiative,” which has streamlined communications to a steady halt. This comes in addition to the standing distrust between government and media and the persistent concern that any message not parsed in opaque federal doublespeak could damage the department’s image and land some unsuspecting political appointee in the congressional crosshairs.

A Voice in the Wilderness

At the helm of NAGC is John Verrico, who also serves as spokesman for the DHS Science & Technology Directorate. At the conference, Verrico said that journalists and public affairs professionals are on the same side, or at least, share the same mission: spreading government information to the public. This mentality is unfortunately uncommon at DHS, though Verrico and NAGC are making strides in amending that. He said: “It does no one any good if [journalists] only get part of the story.”

As Margetta said, getting experts on the phone can be a challenge. Not so when working with Verrico, who (from my experience) is quick to connect reporters and DHS experts. A previous Society of Professional Journalists survey revealed that 70 percent of reporters view it as censorship when an agency controls journalist access to government employees. The impression I got from the NAGC conference is that public affairs officials coordinate, rather than restrict, access.

Verrico said his job is, in part, to help translate technical language into something reporters and the public can digest. This may mean sitting in the room during an interview, and it might also mean being selective in deciding who is the best source for a story. Far from censorship, this can enhance a journalist’s reporting. Yet, some public affairs officers do shut the door, offering a two-line policy-approved statement and nothing more.

Speaking to TSA, for example, can be an uphill battle. My conversations with TSA public affairs have been professional and helpful, to a point. Yet, TSA as an institution fails miserably at educating the public and sharing the all-important reason for implementing a new policy or tactic.

It would be unfair, however, to heap the blame for this total failure of communication upon TSA public affairs, or indeed, any DHS PA who is hesitant to connect journalists directly with the subject matter experts who design and implement homeland security. Not all SMEs want to talk to the press; some have been misquoted or otherwise burned in the past. And not all agency leaders view government-media interaction as a priority, particularly when seen from a perspective of public security trumping public information.

Nevertheless, Verrico and others like him at NAGC are looking for ways to make DHS and other agencies at all levels of government more approachable, more transparent and a willing partner in the common mission of serving the public. What needs to happen, as journalist Kathryn Foxhall said at the conference, is to harmonize both professions’ with the first amendment. In the rush to free speech, journalists sometimes forget that with that right comes an obligation for balanced, ethical reporting. At the same time, a silent government precludes citizens from enjoying an understanding of the government for which they pay.

Many thanks to John Verrico, the NAGC and the others I met at last week’s conference. Readers should check out the NAGC website for video and other valuable information on the important ongoing effort to build openness and collaboration between government and the press.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • As an outsider, former journalist, now working in PR, this debrief helps me understand the comm challenge of government. It’s “the telephone game” all over again, which is why companies have PR to control a message, but the government is met with criticism for similar efforts.