Are PAOs a Help or Hindrance? Press Club Debates

August 14, 2013

SEJ members are not imagining their problems with government public affairs officers (PAOs). Journalists of all stripes heard a panel debate: "Government Public Affairs Offices: More Hindrance Than Help?" August 12, 2013, at the National Press Club.

It was certainly an open question. The journalists on the panel said PAOs were often a hindrance — while the public affairs professionals said they were helping journalists. That was no surprise.

The real news may have been presentation of results of a survey conducted by Carolyn S. Carlson, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University. To risk summarizing in a headline: things are as bad as SEJ members have complained they are. Some highlights:

  • 98 percent of Public Affairs Offices believe they have a better idea than reporters about who would be the best person to give an interview on a given topic.
  • Three-quarters of journalists report they have to get approval from PAOs before interviewing an agency employee.
  • About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit them from interviewing altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.
  • Two-thirds of PAOs say they feel justified in refusing to grant an interview when the agency’s security is threatened or it might reveal damaging information.

If that is the bad news, then the good news is that "More than half of the reporters admit that they tried to circumvent the public affairs office at least some of the time."

On behalf of members, the Society of Environmental Journalists has repeatedly complained to the US Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies about requirements for PAO permissions to interview staff and Saddam-like PAO "minders" during interviews. The results have been scant. Circumventing press office "minders" seems often the best option for reporters on deadline.

But there are many times when this is not possible. Many publications require on-the-record quotes. Many SEJ members have reported that they have requested interviews with specific agency scientists about specific articles the scientists have published — only to be refused by the press office, or to have permission delayed past their deadline.

At the National Press Club, two panelists made strong cases for more openness from federal agency PAOs. Freelancer Kathryn Foxhall asked journalists, "Why are we so buffaloed?" "It is massive, pernicious censorship that’s now a cultural norm," she added. Foxhall said that two decades ago, reporter-official contacts had been much less controlled, but that the "minder" trend that took hold during the Bush administration had only tightened during the Obama administration.

Linda Petersen, who chairs the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the "minders" trend had gone from federal agencies down to the level of state and local government. As managing editor of a group of eight community papers in the Salt Lake City suburbs, Petersen said such restrictions keep people from knowing things that affect their lives — like how a city is doing road repairs. Engineers, she said, know more about paving than PAOs.

What reporters really need is good PAOs, said Tony Fratto, who had served as deputy press secretary under President George W. Bush. "Too few press officers really master their issue areas," he said. "Some PAOs are dealing with very complex, dynamic issues, but never invest their time and energy to learn."

John Verrico, incoming President of the National Association of Government Communicators, said that as declining newspapers shed dedicated beat reporters, PAOs were more needed to help general assignment reporters with complex stories.

"I've never imposed rules on reporters," Fratto said. "I've never taken it out on a reporter for going around me and calling. The job of a reporter ... is to try to find information and to ask questions and to develop sources. It's crucial to the job. I'd never blame a reporter for doing his job and I have many times defended a reporter for making those calls. That's the reporter's job."