Top Tips for Getting Around the Press Office

For some while it's been pretty clear that reporters have only slim chances of getting useful help from the US EPA press office — or the equivalent at many (not all) other agencies. If you expect nothing from the press office, you will rarely be disappointed. Even getting a callback before your deadline is a major feat. Good stories rarely come only from a call to the press office. Of course, there are times when you have to call them. But even public affairs professionals will admit that good reporters do their best to circumvent the public affairs people.

The list of line press officers for EPA headquarters is here.

Don’t be afraid of the press office. That’s just what they want, and that’s how they try to control you. If you fear press office revenge for going around them, you have already lost. Experience teaches that they will continue leaking to reporters who break their restrictions (if the reporters work for a big enough outlet.)

Sadly, EPA’s press office tends to be more responsive to big national media and less responsive to local, small-audience, and nonprofit media. This is awful, but sometimes you can compensate by pestering them.

Remember that the press office itself is often motivated by fear -- the fear of bad publicity.

So here are some pro tips:

  1. Know whom you want to talk to. It may be a scientist who has published an article. It may be an agency staff member. Use the EPA locator and organization charts. Many agency activities involve Federal Register notices, and almost every FR notice has the name and phone number of an agency employee whose job is to give information to the public. Ask knowledgeable people who the good sources inside the agency are. If a press officer tries to make you interview someone else, object and ask why.

  1. Call up the agency employee you want to talk to. Identify yourself as news media. Begin talking to them. Do not begin by going through the press office. If they are reluctant, you may choose to offer them anonymity. If they say they can not talk to you, write that down and make it part of your story. Go to the press office only if and when you must.

  1. Cultivate personal relationships with regular sources inside the agency. Establish trust — this may take a long time. Convince them that you will go to jail rather than do anything that would identify them. Talk to them when you don't want a story from them. Listen. Sometimes they are your neighbors, friends of friends, book club members, fellow soccer moms, etc.

  1. Go to meetings. Agency personnel attend many kinds of meetings. Scientists, for example, attend scientific meetings, and may often present papers at them. But there are many other kinds of meetings, and you can learn about them by cruising agency websites. The social rules at these meetings are different — and sources may often feel free to talk in the hallways or during public Q&A periods.

  1. Stake out your quarry. Go to where your source may be. Just walking up to someone in a public space and asking them a question can bring amazing results. High-level EPA officials used to post their public schedules.. (Thank you, Lisa Jackson!) But even lower-level employees may have predictable haunts. For example, if an EPA official is at a Congressional hearing, you might try to talk to him or her during a break or in the hallway.

  1. Talk to higher-ups when possible. Some EPA Assistant Administrators, who are Congressionally confirmed and often testify on the Hill, are under the impression that they are allowed to take part in public dialogue. You may also find staff in some AA's offices who know everything and will explain it to you on deep background. Call the AA’s office and ask questions.

  1. Use “background” when needed. Sure, good journalists want sources on the record, but this is the real world. “Background” is OK when it gets you a story you would not otherwise get. It should meet your needs, and the needs of your source, not the needs of the agency.

  1. Talk to people outside the agency. Lobbyists, people at regulated companies, regulatory operatives, scientists, contractors, grantees, Hill staff of both parties, people from nonprofit and NGO policy shops, academics, etc. Such people often know more than the media or the public about what is going on in the agency. Trade info with fellow journalists when possible.

  1. Talk to people at other levels or branches of government. Congressional committees have subpoena power that can pry loose information reporters can't hope to get on their own. Ditto for the discovery power of lawyers in litigation with an agency. State agencies watch federal agencies like hawks to anticipate actions that will affect them (and often get the memo). You may find that some people at EPA regional offices sometimes see things differently than people at the EPA headquarters press office.

  1. Read the docket. Then talk to the people who have submitted comments and documents to the docket. The regulatory docket for EPA and other agencies is here. Learn how to search and read it. Call the people listed as information contacts.

  1. Sign up for mailing lists and feeds. EPA has a lot of them, and they vary a lot in usefulness to reporters. You can get a feed of press office releases here, or you can visit the EPA online press room. There are a great many more EPA mailing lists and listserves, many of them listed here. Most focus on a narrow subject; many allow two-way dialogue.

  1. Start with documents. Some are right on EPA’s website. Some are court filings. Some are leaked emails. Do the research. If you know the subject, this often puts you two moves ahead of the PAO. Know the answers, if possible, before you ask questions. Sadly, this takes time and effort, which is a big part of good journalism. If you are ignorant, you are a pawn of the press office.

  1. State your deadline bluntly. That means the time you need the information, not the time you have to file. Always put this in a phone message to a press officer. Tell them that if you get nothing, you will print “did not respond.” Do not delay a story while the press office dithers.

  1. Refuse to pre-submit questions. Bad press officers often ask reporters to submit questions in writing ahead of an interview. Never agree explicitly to such terms, and don’t agree to ask only pre-submitted questions. Do be clear about what information you seek. It may be OK to submit a few sacrifice softballs or general subjects ahead, but don’t agree to limit the scope of questioning.

  1. File a FOIA request. Yes, the Freedom of Information Act's purpose is to get you records. But in the human and political world of reporting, it also serves to cover the rear ends of people who want to give you information but are not allowed to by the political appointees who give them orders. Once you have established that you and the public have a legal right to the information, sources may sometimes be more cooperative.

  1. Don’t play “Mother May I?”. If an EPA (or other agency) employee says they are not allowed to talk to you without press office permission, ask them how they received this instruction, whether it was in writing, and whether they are willing to give you a copy of the directive. Ask the employee why they feel a need to follow a policy which is not in writing. Tell them that the press office says that no such policy exists. EPA maintains that it has no such policy, at least not in writing. If the employee tells you how they got the don't-talk directive, record that, make it part of your story, and contact the WatchDog.

  1. Challenge the Nanny Press Office. If a press officer says they have to sit in on an interview (in person or on phone), tell them you do not agree to it because it could intimidate the subject of the interview. If they say their concern is accuracy, tell them the interview subject knows more than they do. If you are forced to accept these conditions, put them on the record during the interview, and record the interview so that any press officer interference is documented.

  1. Challenge restrictive ground rules. The default assumption is that everything is on the record. Never agree to rules of attribution unless they serve your purpose of giving information to the public. An agreement does not exist unless and until two parties agree to it. PAOs can not assume that they are on background unless you agree.  They get the big bucks for being "public" affairs officers. Make them earn it. Quote them when they say "I can only talk to you on background." Then ask them why. Then quote their answer.

  1. Work with the Regional Office. Each of the 10 EPA Regions has its own public affairs apparatus.

  1. Use The Back-Channels. There are sources who are in touch with the EPA people who can’t talk to you (and ex-EPA people who can). These are not magic, but they can be helpful. If you call them with an inquiry, you may be surprised at whom you end up talking to. Sometimes they are people who only recently left the agency. Here are some examples.

 

PEER. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a whistleblower nonprofit that works with employees of EPA and other agencies.

EDGI. The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative may have started as a Trump-era data rescue project, but its mission has grown. Includes non-EPA people like academics.

‘Save EPA’ Network. This Colorado-based volunteer group is made up of retired and former EPA employees.

Environmental Protection Network. This volunteer group draws on people who have worked in federal, state, and local environmental programs.

Save the US EPA. This group is really based on the AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees), one of the main unions representing EPA employees. As union reps, they are allowed to talk to reporters.

EPA Alumni Association. While not focused on whistleblowing (it’s about jobs), this group of 1,637 former EPA staff does have a press contact.

  1. Don’t forget about data. The EPA has many datasets on its website, some of which might be perfect for whatever story you’re working on or contemplating -- and could answer questions the press office wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. A few examples here, here and here. It’s always worth asking for a conversation with a keeper of whatever dataset you’re looking at so you can learn about caveats or how to avoid problems with the analysis you want to do. Those can be very helpful, and because background is fine for your purposes, the EPA tends to be more likely to OK that than an interview.

Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists aren't the only ones who find federal agency press offices to be hard to get call-backs, on-record interviews, or simple information from. Many health writers have the same problem.

In the July 16, 2014, issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports, Jenni Bergal paints a broad canvas of the problems many journalists have in getting from agencies key information that affects the public interest.

Previous Stories: WatchDogs of June 11, 2014 and August 14, 2013.

 

[Ed. Note: There are a few federal press offices that actually are trying to help you. For example, the US Geological Survey, or parts of NOAA such as the National Hurricane Center. When they help, give them hugs.]

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