Wick Communications

Death by PIO

In journalism on April 11, 2013 at 3:38 pm

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Frankly, rapport between those of us at the Half Moon Bay Review and our next-door neighbors in City Hall has been better. I think that is because the city is just starting to emerge from about five years of real financial peril. There were layoffs. There was talk of bankruptcy and multi-million dollar court judgments against the city. And we wrote about all of it.

As we all know, elected folks have been known to shoot the messenger.

One result: our city manager got the bright idea to hire a San Francisco-based public relations firm. Her idea was to make us call the PR guy in the big city every time we wanted any information from the building next door. To be clear, a city that was literally drowning in debt (a big insurance settlement has recently made things better), was paying five-figures to a guy 40 miles away who would act as the sole spokesman for a half-dozen public servants who are in a building three feet from the only news outlet in town. Your tax dollars at work.

This didn’t work so well, partly because we didn’t play along. We continued to call city sources we’ve known and treated well for years, and sometimes they violated the gag order and actually talked to us. So the city manager fumed. …

Recently, I resolved to improve relations. The city manager agreed to meet me for coffee (after the mayor suggested she take my invitation). It was clear she wasn’t happy about wasting time in my presence and she let me have it over an afternoon coffee. She accused me of “going behind her back” to call her employees and not using the service that, from her perspective, she had set up just to help us get reliable information. She accused us of misquoting her and painting a relentlessly bleak picture of life in Half Moon Bay.

On most of that we agreed to disagree. We also agreed to another informal meeting, which I will count as progress.

I am sure we are not the only news organization with less-than ideal relations with city hall. And I know other government agencies are increasingly turning to public information officers in an attempt to hide decision makers from you and me.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill magazine and the National Newspaper Association’s Publishers’ Auxiliary have featured the PIO problem in their pages. They claim anecdotal evidence that reporters are being shoved off on public information officers more often than before. I didn’t see any real evidence in their pages to support that assertion, but authors say things have gotten worse at the federal level since Barack Obama swept into office.

There is even a fledgling organization that has formed to buck the trend. “Stop the New American Censorship” was formed by news professionals concerned that minders were tainting the information citizens need in order to monitor their government. I suggest you take a look at the website.

I noticed that I struggled a bit to explain to our city manager why it was important that we to speak to bureaucrats. If you find yourself in such an argument, here are some potential talking points that may resonate:

  • Primary sources are always better. We know from long history of police reporting that you are usually better talking to the detective on the crime scene than trying to get something out of the PIO the next morning. Talking directly to the scientist, the planning director, the hospital administrator eliminates the game of telephone that can add error into our stories.
  • Time is of the essence. Ours can be a business for which seconds count. Our readers can’t afford to wait for crucial information while their government vets canned quotes.
  • These bureaucrats work for us. Coca-Cola can manage the press any way it wants. It delays and obfuscates at its own discretion and peril. The men and women who work for government ought not expect the same luxury. They are answerable to citizens.
  • The actual space between my office in Half Moon Bay and City Hall.

    The actual space between my office in Half Moon Bay and City Hall.

    A school secretary is liable to tell you what she really thinks of the school board priorities; the PIO will only deliver the party line.

Are PIOs making your job more difficult or easier?

Clay

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