Government Public Affairs Offices: More Hindrance Than Help for Open Government?

Event Date: 
August 12, 2013

A National Press Club panel will convene on Aug. 12 to debate federal public-affairs practices that some say can cut the public off from its affairs.

Although executive branch communications offices can be useful, at times indispensable, in helping the press cover the government, reporters need to always be free to seek information in other ways. Yet doing so has become difficult to a degree that some say jeopardizes open government.

Public affairs offices increasingly require that reporters conduct all interviews through the press office. More ominously, U.S. departments and agencies often mandate that their employees only talk to reporters through official channels and with communications staff present--or face the risk of
disciplinary action. In that same vein, former U.S. officials say that federal personnel seeking to obtain or renew security clearances are sometimes asked if they have had unauthorized contact with a reporter-- a signal to federal workers, especially in the national security field, that
talking with journalists is not acceptable.

Such restrictions have increasingly become the rule in federal agencies, but they were not in place so widely a few decades ago. Most reporters do not protest the practices, because they have never known another way.

On the other side of the issue, public affairs professionals believe these controls are necessary to ensure that the press gets accurate information and the department or agency’s message is unified and coherent.

To explore the issue, the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee has assembled a panel of experts with differing views on the subject.

The panel will be moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call and also includes:

  • Linda Petersen - Managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; freedom of information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
  • Carolyn Carlson - Former AP reporter; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
  • John Verrico - president-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
  • Kathryn Foxhall - freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue

Click here to register now.

Where: Lisagor Room, National Press Club, 529 14th St. N.W., (13th floor),
Washington, D.C. (Near Metro Center)
When: Aug. 12, 6:30 to 8pm
Reservations: NPC Members: $5; Others: $10
Contact: John M. Donnelly, NPC Press Freedom Committee chairman -

Links on the PIO Issue:

SPJ president’s column:

Survey of public information officers/public affairs officers in which 39
percent of PIOs/PAOs agreed with the statement that they block certain
reporters, “because of problems with their stories in the past.”

Survey of journalists who cover federal agencies found that, “information
flow in the United States is highly regulated by public affairs officers, to
the point where most reporters considered the control to be a form of
censorship and an impediment to providing information to the public.”


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