Printed on: September 29, 2013

Idaho government ramps up its PR

By SVEN BERG
Idaho Statesman

Governments are spending more than ever to talk about themselves.

Reliable numbers are difficult to come by, but most people agree the number of public information officers on public payrolls has increased, especially in the past 20 years.

City and county governments, state agencies, universities, school districts, even sewer, irrigation and ambulance districts pay people to, at least part of the time, communicate with the public.

The question is: Why?

Some people claim it's because governments are working harder to spin their message -- to inflate their achievements and minimize their missteps.

Others see a different side.

Elizabeth Fredericksen, a professor in Boise State University's public policy and administration department, said governments are responding to the explosion in the number of news media outlets and the public's demand for information.

"I can't even name all the media outlets. We have Twitter. We have Facebook, etc., etc.," she said. "There's an expectation that government needs to be increasingly more transparent, and because we have more media outlets, really, someone needs to do that. And it's technically quite challenging for a lot of people."

In 2013, the state of Idaho, not counting its universities and colleges, will pay at least 45 people more than $2.5 million to talk to the news media and promote its agencies. Boise State University has at least 20 people in marketing and communications who collectively earn about $1 million a year. The University of Idaho almost doubles that figure.

The city of Boise has eight communications specialists whose collective salaries add up to more than $443,000. That's more than Salt Lake City's five public information officers, but not as many as Spokane's 10 full-time communications employees and three part-timers.

The runaround

Usually, the public hears from public information officers through the news media. When kidnapper James DiMaggio showed up in the Idaho wilderness, television audiences and news readers around the world watched as Ada County Sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Dearden described the hunt for DiMaggio and victim Hannah Anderson.

Public information officers, also known as flacks, are the gatekeepers for agencies and governments. Often, they want reporters to talk to them first about shootings, fires, utility rate increases, budgets or other issues.

Here's how it works: Let's say a reporter wants to do a story on a new phosphate-removal system at the city sewer plant. He or she has to call the city's public information staffers, who talk to the sewer experts. Flacks discourage reporters from talking directly to the experts.

The flack either relays the information to the reporter or sets up an interview with the experts. A flack usually chaperones the interview to help the experts convey information -- or to control the message, depending on your point of view.

This arrangement causes friction between the media and public information teams. On one hand, reporters rely on public information specialists to get them information they need quickly and accurately. On the other hand, they complain that flacks spin information instead of presenting it unvarnished.

"There are those who, for some reason, they go to work in that trade and they drink the Kool-Aid and, boom, they're message control. They become advocates," said Marty Trillhaase, editorial page editor for the Lewiston Tribune.

It's one thing for private companies to pay their own people to spin the message, Trillhaase said. Government flacks answer to a different master.

"Who's paying for this? You're a public employee," Trillhaase said. "If you're working for a company, then you're being paid by the company. But if you're working for government, you're getting paid by the taxpayer, presumably to help the taxpayer know what's going on. Who's your primary duty to?"

In 1995, to Trillhaase's way of thinking, the Idaho Legislature made it more difficult for state government flacks to maintain their independence by making them "at-will" employees. Before then, they were "classified" employees. In order to fire them, their bosses had to go through a process that explained what the flack was doing wrong and how to fix it. The process was designed to limit frivolous firings.

At-will employees can be fired without cause or process.

"It makes it so your boss can fire you if he doesn't like you," he said.

The decisions of private companies and the way they present information also affect the public, Fredericksen said.

"Wouldn't it have been nice to believe that the Enron (public information officers) were speaking with integrity? And wouldn't it be nice to believe that mortgage companies and the banking industry, etc., are speaking with integrity?" Fredericksen said. "It's unfortunate that we're highly tolerant of deceit or misdirection...in the business community or even the nonprofit community and less so in the public sector. ... We need to hold everyone to a higher standard."

How to be a good flack

Ada County spokeswoman Jessica Donald said message control and obstruction aren't her style.

"Unless I have an emergency, I will drop everything and I will focus on getting you the information you need as quickly as possible," Donald said. "It's about effective communication and making sure you have all the information you need. It's not about withholding information."

That attitude is a core part of being a good public information officer, said Rick Dale, a spokesman for a cleanup contractor on the U.S. Department of Energy's site west of Idaho Falls. Access to the right people, knowledge of the work they're doing and diligence are important, Dale said, but building a trusting relationship with the media is indispensable.

"And that takes being honest, making sure you get back to reporters when they have questions, making sure that you're always accessible, making sure that if you don't know something, you'll get back and that you'll follow through," he said.

The dark side

Public information officers do more than talk to the media. They write press releases. They set up business lunches for their bosses. They hang posters to promote events. They make sure ribbon-cuttings run smoothly.

Traditionally, flacks have gone into the public information game after working for the news media, often for many years. There's a theme that emerges when you ask why they left journalism. They loved the news, but the pay was too little, the hours too long and unpredictable, the stress greater than the reward. They wanted to spend time with their families.

When they take public information jobs, their media compatriots sometimes call it going over to the "Dark Side."

Ex-reporters tend to make better flacks. Experience in the media helps them anticipate the news cycle and reporters' needs, Trillhaase said.

The Public Relations Society of America, a national organization of public information officers, has a code of ethics that looks a lot like what you'd expect in a journalist's code.

The society embraces honesty, independence, expertise and fairness as professional values. It talks about fostering informed decisions through accurate and truthful information. It advises members to reveal conflicts of interest.

"We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest," according to the "loyalty" section of the code's professional values.

Eliminating the barrier

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is one agency that doesn't employ public information officers, at least not in its Boise headquarters. Its Idaho Falls office has one.

From a certain point of view, this is surprising, since the agency does a lot of work that's technically complex and difficult to explain.

As Fredericksen pointed out, many agencies like to have people who are familiar with the details of their work and specialize in explaining that information to media types who, in turn, relay it to the general public.

"Some of these concepts, it takes an enormous amount of knowledge base to translate to simple terms," Fredericksen said. "The more detailed and complex the subject matter, the more you rely upon someone who's an information officer, whether for a business or for a nonprofit or the public sector, to try to communicate, to try to translate what we're learning."

Department of Environmental Quality Director Curt Fransen sees it a different way. He tries to thin the barriers between media and his staff.

"We've had kind of a policy of trying to put media contacts in direct contact with people that are actually working on the project rather than it gets explained to me and I try to explain it to you. We try to cut through that a little bit," Fransen said. "There obviously is some limitation to that because sometimes, some people aren't very good at talking to the media and can't get them the information they want."

fessor in Boise State University's public policy and administration department, said governments are responding to the explosion in the number of news media outlets and the public's demand for information.

"I can't even name all the media outlets. We have Twitter. We have Facebook, etc., etc.," she said. "There's an expectation that government needs to be increasingly more transparent, and because we have more media outlets, really, someone needs to do that. And it's technically quite challenging for a lot of people."