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RESPONSIBLE PRESS OFFICE From the author... Over the past several years, I've had the pleasure of traveling to various Central European and Eurasian countries as a participant in the U.S. State Department's Speakers Program. On these trips, I've met with many government officials and, based on my experience both as a reporter and as a spokesperson for several U.S. government organizations, have advised them on how to run an effective public affairs operation. This book is a direct response to the many questions I've been asked while on these trips. It has been written as a sort of pocket guide for government leaders and public information officials who want to create an effective mechanism of communication between the press and the government. The choice of material reflects issues raised by these spokespersons, both in terms of the specific topics addressed and the level of detail provided. The questions discussed here are certainly not unique to any one part of the world; most are the same as or similar to questions I've been asked in the United States and other countries. How do I deal with the press during a crisis situation? How do I develop the message that the government official for whom I work wants people to understand and accept? How do I assess an interview request? How do I set up a press conference? How do I combine a press office's need for a long-term communications strategy with its responsibility for working with the press on a daily basis? How friendly can and should government spokespersons and journalists be? One topic that this book does not include but about which I've fielded many questions is "sunshine laws" — or the Freedom of Information Act and open meeting requirements — in the United States. For information on this subject, I would refer the reader to the booklet "Transparency in Government," prepared by the U.S. Department of State, Office of International Information Programs. That office is also currently working on another short publication titled "Democracy Paper #10: The Public's Right to Know," which should be available before the end of 2001. The material in this "insider's guide" also reflects my own working experiences in the United States. I have observed how a government communicates from the outside, as a reporter and columnist covering government, and from the inside, as a government spokesperson working with journalists. As a journalist, I reported on government at all levels — from the local to the national. As a government spokesperson, I responded to and worked with members of the regional, national, and international press. And as president of the Washington Press Club and an official in several government executive groups, I learned firsthand the importance of professional organizations through which you can share experiences, problems, and successes with your peers. Finally, both inside and outside the United States, I have observed how important the roles of government spokespersons and journalists are in a democratic society — and how they can work together to communicate information about government to the citizenry and respond to their concerns. WHAT A PRESS OFFICE DOES • What a Press Office Is and Is Not • Journalists and Government Press Officials • The Duty of Dealing With the Press "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both," said the United States' fourth president, James Madison, in 1822. "Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe," said Abraham Lincoln, America's 16th president, in 1864. These U.S. presidents were talking about how a democracy works. Their words hold true today. For people to exercise power, they must be able to make informed choices and independent judgments. This can happen only if they have factual, credible information. They get that from a free press. A free press serves as the citizen watchdog over government. The media inform the public about governmental activity and spark debate. They hold public officials to the highest standards and report whether or not the government is maintaining the public trust. From the American Revolution in the 18th century came the idea that the government should be accountable to the people and that the individuals who work in the government are public servants. But serving the people is a two-way venture. In a democracy, serving the people is both the job of the press and the job of government officials. As U.S. President John F. Kennedy said: "The flow of ideas, the capacity to make informed choices, the ability to criticize, all of the assumptions on which political democracy rests, depend largely on communications." What a Press Office Is and Is Not "A government public affairs office is central to the whole system of communicating with the people," says Sheila Tate, who was press secretary to U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan in the early 1980s and to Vice President George Bush in his successful 1988 presidential campaign. According to Tate: "The government press operation is the daily conduit through which the press gets information on the workings of the government." Explaining how government programs and policies have an impact on citizens is the major role of a government press office. This public information effort conveys government officials' concerns and plans to the public, and it helps the public understand how various issues could affect their lives. "Governments have so much information that they need an effective way to distribute it to their citizens, and that's where the government spokesperson comes in," says Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. "The spokesperson is like a reporter working inside government collecting information for the public. [It is the spokesperson's role to get as much information to the public as possible." Government press officials, then, have two roles. In dealing with the media, they are advocates for the government's position, explaining the merits of official action. They correct erroneous information and try to improve the interpretation and understanding of existing information. They also are advocates for the media within the government, relaying reporters' needs, such as the desire to do a news story on a topic that government officials may or may not be ready to discuss. Spokespersons often do reporters' work in a sense, gathering information for the press and translating what government experts have to say for the media. "The press secretary's job is to present the president's positions and thoughts in a manner that helps him advance his agenda, while also helping the press learn what the government is doing," says Ari Fleisher, White House press secretary to President George W. Bush. "It's a balancing act that requires careful judgment in service to two masters." The spokesperson's job is both assertive — trying to emphasize certain aspects of the news — and reactive — responding to reporters' questions. For example, in the United States, every day the White House usually puts out half-a-dozen press releases announcing new programs, appointments, or activities of the president on which it would like coverage. At the same time, reporters covering the White House contact the press office with questions for stories that may or may not be those that White House officials want done. "Yet the job is more than just disseminating information," says Joni Inman, president of the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), a group representing U.S. public information officers in local, state, and the federal government. "We definitely are the link between our governments and the people, and the translators of information from government to the people, but we also have to know what is coming our way, hear what is on the street, and translate it back to our government officials," says Inman, who is director of citizen relations for the city of Lakewood, Colorado. But a government press officer is not a magician who can transform a policy or program that is not working into something that appears to be functioning well. As the National Governors Association tells new U.S. state governors in its orientation material, public relations cannot substitute for effective programs or worthwhile ideas. A press secretary cannot create an image of honesty if government officials are not honest. He or she cannot portray a government that recognizes and responds to problems if problems persist and little is done about them. A press office cannot convince the press to write about the openness of a government that is not open or the management skills of government officials who do not manage. Nor can a press office convey a government's objectives if the government leaders it serves are not clear about those objectives. Journalists and Government Press Officials Government press officials should not expect to be friends or foes of journalists. Journalists should be neutral observers of government and of its actions and plans. In a democracy, press and government cannot be partners. They are natural adversaries with different functions. Each should respect the role of the other and yet recognize that a natural tension exists between the two. On the one hand, at times it's a relationship in which officials try to tell their version of events or avoid publicity altogether, and the press looks for mistakes and pushes to get information released. On the other hand, the relationship is reciprocal. Journalists need government press officers to help them understand the government's actions and plans. Government press officers need journalists to get information on the government's actions and plans to the public. Some government press officers expect that a journalist who is a social friend will not write a story that is negative, but a professional journalist does not let a friendship with an official stand in the way of a story. Being a journalist is a 24-hour-a-day job, and a good journalist is never off duty. "Spokespersons must have cordial but professional relations with reporters," says former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "They, reporters, have jobs to do, and you, spokespersons, have jobs to do. You can be friends with a reporter, but you must remember reporters are always on the job and so are you." In social situations, government officials should clarify the ground rules under which they are making their statements, such as "off the record" or "for background only." (See "Speaking On and Off the Record.") A good rule is to never say or do anything you don't want to see on the front page of the newspaper the next day. "Spokespersons can have a friendly professional relationship with a journalist, but a personal relationship can be difficult," says NAGC's Joni Inman. "There will come a time when a reporter needs to ask probing questions or write or air a story that you may not want. You can't just rely on friendship. Something will suffer — either the professional relationship or the friendship. But you need to have the professional relationship. You need to be able to call up a reporter and say, 'You really blew that story.' " The Duty of Dealing With the Press In addition, government spokespersons should not stand in the way of a story. Public servants don't have the right to decide what is good for people to know and what is not good. Their job is to supply news material to all journalists, even those perceived as less than friendly. "A good press secretary should respond to every request for information from legitimate news organizations, even if the response is a simple, 'I have to get back to you,' " says Juleanna Glover, press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney. "Common courtesy should be the rule. Although the press might be hostile at a given moment, there always will be a time when you need them to transmit a message. When that time comes, they'll remember who was civil and who was not." Some government officials have expressed surprise when during press conferences, journalists ask questions that are not on the subject of the press briefing. This is normal. Journalists may have little access to government officials, and they ask questions, whether on the stated topic or not, when they get access. It is part of having a free press. "Press offices could be considered not only as a government subsidy or a government efficiency but as an entitlement that flows from the nature of a free society and the relationship of the state to the citizen," writes presidential scholar Stephen Hess in The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices. "What more natural function of government is there in a democracy than for it to make available information about how it is governing?" In a democracy, Hess writes, dealing with the press is a duty. THE JOB OF A PRESS OFFICER • Roles of the Press Spokesperson • Establishing the Press Officer Job • Authority and Coordination • Relationships With Other Press Offices • A Credible Spokesperson To be an effective spokesperson, the chief press officer or press secretary should have a close relationship, one of mutual respect, with the government official for whom he or she works, whether prime minister, president, minister, or agency head. The spokesperson should be familiar with the official's beliefs and should have direct access to him or her. The spokesperson should be able to walk into meetings and interrupt the official with pressing news without going through a scheduler or other aide. While this flexibility can disturb an orderly schedule, it results in a government that can respond quickly to media issues. The press officer also should have a role in decision-making so that those formulating policy will understand the public relations ramifications of proposed actions. If, as spokesperson, the press officer has not participated in developing policy, he or she will have difficulty understanding the context of the policies and explaining it to the media. "It is very important to have the communicator as part of the strategy team," says the NAGC's Joni Inman. "If a government official is planning on taking an action, you need to know how it will be perceived. It is better to have the communicator at the table, engaged in the discussion in the early formative stages, than to have to play catch up or be blindsided by negative public reaction because the communicator, the person with the sense of public sentiments, wasn't there." Roles of the Press Spokesperson According to presidential scholar Stephen Hess, on the federal level in the United States, responding to press questions takes up 50 percent of a typical press spokesperson's time, keeping informed and working on agency business 25 percent, and initiating materials and events 25 percent. But a closer look at these functions suggests that a press officer's job can be broken down into many roles:  Serving as the government spokesperson who conducts regular or special briefings.  Managing the day-to-day activities of the press office. Assisting in developing government policies and in developing strategies to convey them to the media and the public.  Planning and managing media campaigns to put out a consistent long-term message.  Handling press inquiries.  Setting up interviews and briefings for the press with government officials.  Advising government officials and staff on press relations and potential media reaction to proposed policies.  Overseeing speech writing, or at least reviewing speeches and their messages.  Staging events such as news conferences.  Preparing news releases, fact sheets, and other materials.  Serving as a liaison with or supervisor of other government press offices.  Arranging transportation and hotel accommodations for the traveling press.  Issuing press credentials.  Supervising agency publications internally and externally.  Evaluating, after the fact, whether an event had its wanted effect and determining how to do better next time. Establishing the Press Officer Job In establishing the position of spokesperson, the first responsibility lies with the government official whom he or she will represent. That official must determine with the spokesperson how the press office will be organized and what its responsibilities will be. In doing this, the official has to make three key decisions:  How available does he or she wish to be to the press?  What will be the spokesperson's relationship with the rest of the official's staff?  What will be the relationship between the press department and other ministries and departments? This is especially critical if the official is head of the government or of a ministry with subsections. The government official also has to consider more detailed issues:  How often will he or she be interviewed?  How often will he or she conduct press conferences?  May the spokesperson speak on his/her behalf? Or will only the government official do press briefings? In the best of circumstances, the government official is readily accessible to the press, does frequent press conferences, and also has a spokesperson who can speak on his or her behalf. At the White House, for example, the press secretary holds a daily televised press briefing but steps aside when the president appears to address the press in person. "To make the job work, the press secretary has to be accessible to the press, has to be well informed, and has to believe in the press's function in a democracy," says Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. "You can't have a democracy without a free press, and even though the press can seem intrusive at times, it is essential. A press secretary needs to understand the mission of the press and work with it." Authority and Coordination The authority the press officer has with the rest of the government official's top staff is also important. Among the issues are:  Is the press officer the initial point of contact with the press, and does he or she have authority over the staff's relationships with the press?  Are other offices authorized to answer questions, other than routine queries, without first consulting with the press office? For example, if a reporter calls the scheduling office with a simple scheduling question, such as the time of an event, should it be routed to the press office or can the scheduler answer it?  Who needs to review the press office's news releases, speeches, and policy statements?  Must other top-level staff, such as the chief of staff for the office, have sign-off authority on these public statements?  Will the spokesperson have access to the top-level staff in the office? In one recent case, a novice U.S. state governor created chaos by ignoring the need for coordination in his office. His chief of staff would give one message on the governor's goals to the press, the chief of policy another, and the press secretary yet a third. The media reported on the resulting chaos, and the governor's public approval ratings dropped precipitously. It was only when the press operation became integrated with the rest of the staff that a coherent message developed, press coverage improved, and the public began to support the governor's programs. "Without coordination, the job can't get done well," says Susan King, former assistant secretary for public affairs for the U.S. Departments of Labor and of Housing and Urban Development. What will happen without it, King predicts, "is that a staff person will say, I represent my boss — a subsection head — and not the head of the organization. Everyone down the line has to feel they speak for the biggest boss, or there will be tension." It is best when the press secretary coordinates all interaction the staff has with the media. At a minimum, a press secretary needs to know as soon as possible whether or not a staff member has had any interaction with the press and what topics were discussed. If there are no clear procedures, an administration could respond with contradictory information, and the public would be left confused and ultimately mistrusting of the government. For a government official and his or her press office, the rule should be: no surprises. Or at least as few as possible. The "no surprises" rule is also of crucial importance in the relationship between the central government office and government departments, as well as between a ministry and its subsections. It is important to determine how cabinet-level activities fit into the overall government media relations program and what role the spokesperson plays. Much of the agenda of a government is carried out through cabinet offices and ministries, and ideally there is coordination among them. A key issue is the degree of control a central government official wants and can maintain over the public information efforts of cabinet-level agencies. The issue is the same for a ministry's direction over its subsections. Coordination is key in most U.S. government press offices. In the U.S. Department of the Treasury, for example, the central public affairs office of the Secretary of the Treasury has a weekly telephone conference call with the public affairs offices of its bureaus by subject matter. One call covers law enforcement and involves the five U.S. Treasury enforcement bureaus; the second weekly call involves the Treasury's domestic finance bureaus. Through these calls, the Treasury Department's central public affairs office can coordinate and monitor the key communications issues that will come up during the coming weeks. The department also has a rapid response system in place so that its bureaus' public affairs offices can alert the central public affairs office when a controversial issue arises. If an issue is political in nature, a Treasury bureau staffed by career public affairs officers would alert the Treasury Secretary's public affairs office, which is staffed by political appointees, for response. Relationships With Other Press Offices Among the issues to consider when setting up a central press office are:  What will the relationship between the main press office and any subordinate public information offices be?  How will information move between them? Will they have weekly conference calls or meetings? Will they routinely share schedules of their upcoming events?  Should the overall press secretary have authority that extends to cabinet-level agencies?  Who will hire the spokespersons in the ministries and agencies? Will it be the top government press official or each agency head? If the central press office does the hiring, the top government spokesperson has control over the messages delivered, but this can prove very awkward for the head of a ministry. In the best of circumstances, there is cooperation and coordination. In these cases, the agency press secretaries coordinate their efforts with the central spokesperson but have the authority to plan and execute events in their own areas.  What news will the top government official announce on behalf of cabinet offices?  How do the subordinate offices fit into the overall media strategy?  What materials, such as press releases, interviews, and speaking engagements, need to be cleared by the central government press office before being distributed, and how is the review done?  What upcoming events or situations might impede the message a government official wants to send out? What procedures have been set up to get information from the other agencies and ministries? Sharing schedules among departments, having regular meetings to discuss event calendars, and sharing messages on upcoming events can help. In one example of everything gone wrong, a U.S. state governor's press secretary did not appreciate the importance of coordinating messages the day that three state events occurred simultaneously: a state cabinet official announced a program and received major press coverage; a second cabinet official announced a new project and received less coverage; the governor announced another program and received very little coverage. The press office of each cabinet official had made its own arrangements, even though the governor had ultimate authority. There had been no meetings among the press staffs and no coordination of event calendars, and the result was competing press announcements that diminished each other's impact. Consequently, the governor's press secretary began having monthly meetings with the press secretaries of the governor's cabinet offices. Each week he received their calendars with their planned press announcements for the next month and had a staff member make a master calendar from them. When the press secretary found two major announcements planned for the same day, he requested that one be postponed. If the governor scheduled an announcement for a certain day, no other cabinet official could hold a big press event on that day. Media messages were coordinated, and the governor stopped competing with the cabinet for press attention. At a minimum, a press secretary should be informed by subordinate press officers in advance of any potentially embarrassing problems or disclosures. In the best of circumstances, the agencies will give the top government official or minister the chance to announce the positive news, and they will announce the bad news. A Credible Spokesperson What characteristics make a good press secretary? According to former presidential spokesperson Mike McCurry, press secretaries need "a sense of humor, enormous patience, an ability to speak and write quickly, and an uncompromising attitude about the truth. "Credibility," he says, "is the single most important asset of the spokesperson." In The Government/Press Connection, Stephen Hess writes that press officers say they need stamina, curiosity, a helpful nature, good memory, civility, coolness under pressure, an understanding of human psychology, and an ability to predict and handle logistical details. It also helps if a spokesperson learns facts quickly. He or she should be able to handle the unpredictable, manage many tasks simultaneously, deal with constant interruptions, and be quick to react. The spokesperson should be evenhanded with reporters — that is, not play favorites. Above all, the spokesperson should be a person of high personal ethics and integrity. It is vital that the spokesperson maintain his or her credibility and that of the boss. To be effective, a press secretary must be believed by the press; he or she won't be believed if past answers have proven misleading. "The government media effort doesn't work when the spokesperson is not trusted by the media or is frozen out from the information flow within the government," says former press secretary Sheila Tate. In recent years, the role of the spokesperson has become more and more difficult because of the rapidity with which news breaks and its 24-hour availability. Part of the job is knowing who should talk under what circumstances. "Sometimes you have to strategize what message the people need to hear right now and who the best person is to deliver it," says NAGC's Joni Inman. As an example, she cites a triple homicide. "The message that the people need to hear," she says, "is that they are safe and that it will not happen to them. The most effective person to deliver this message would not be the public relations person but the police captain in uniform. In any particular event, you have to look at the most effective communicator." Besides giving information, spokespersons should try to make reporters as comfortable as possible. "Remember that the physical demands of reporting and the long hours make for cranky reporters," says Mike McCurry. "You should try to take care of reporters' basic needs. Make sure they have access to food and drink, that their physical working environment is conducive to compiling and filing their stories, and that the employees of the government press office are helpful." In sum, the spokesperson's job requires balancing many relationships — with the government official he or she represents, with the rest of the top-level government staff, with the press, and with the permanent bureaucracy, particularly if he or she is a political appointee. The spokesperson must also be visible for the boss when that would be helpful and in the background when the boss has the press spotlight. "The most important thing to remember," says former presidential spokesperson Dee Dee Myers, "is that even though the job can be aggravating, difficult, and frustrating at times, it is incumbent on government press offices to help the press get the story right. That goes to the core of what a democracy is. "The system works best when it provides a great degree of openness for the press," Myers says. "Openness is not something to be afraid of." THE PRESS OFFICE AT WORK • Thinking Long Term and Short Term • Dividing Up the Work • Day-to-Day Activities of the Press Office • Putting Workers Where the Work Is • The Need for Coordination In the United States, while the myriad government press offices may be structured differently, they all have two identical duties. They deal with the press, and they keep their government colleagues informed on press interests. Some handle only press relations; others manage all communications, such as publications, speeches, even legislative affairs. Press offices are staffed in various ways. Many have the structure of a newspaper office. If the office has limited staff, as with a small newspaper or news bureau, the division of labor is informal, and most of the employees are generalists. If it is larger, as with a larger news bureau, there may be several press officers, and each may have a "beat" or subject assignment. Other offices are arranged by media specialty, with some press officers handling only print media and others managing only TV and radio. The size of the staff also depends on the number of reporters with whom the office has to deal and the duties of the office — for example, does it handle just press or both press relations and speechwriting? Thinking Long Term and Short Term There is a reactive approach to news, and there is a proactive approach. One entails thinking short term and dealing with daily crises and breaking news. The other requires thinking long term and strategizing about the future. A good government press office performs both functions. Often, the reactive and proactive jobs occur in the same office, and if large enough are performed by two different people. "You can't do the day-to-day spokesman work and provide the more strategic advice and counsel, think through the policy, think through the message, recommend ways to deliver the message," Karen P. Hughes, counselor to President George W. Bush for communications and speechwriting told the Washington Post. It is difficult to think long term when you also must think short term. The daily crises always overtake the in-the-future scheme. Because of the urgency of a crisis, the future plan often gets put off and then never happens. That is why in high-visibility, fast-paced offices, usually one person thinks short term — daily press — and one long term — strategic message planning for the future. "If you are always reacting to questions, you most likely are not advancing your best arguments," says former White House spokesperson Mike McCurry. "You must have a proactive plan to deliver your message to the citizens, and you must communicate your message relentlessly. "In the White House, the job of delivering the news is different from the job of packaging the news, and that is why we had a press secretary and a communications director," says McCurry. "You need to have people who craft the message, prepare the best arguments to put forward, and you need people who can deliver those messages over and over on a daily basis. The first job is that of the communications director, and the second is that of the press secretary. It is similar in business to having one person develop the product and one sell it." During the administration of President George Bush (1989-1993), Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater handled both the long-term and short-term jobs for nine months. He says that he found it to be an impossible task. "As press secretary, you are involved in acute problems always on a daily news basis," Fitzwater says. "You have to get immediate answers to immediate problems, and you don't have time to focus on long-term strategies. Even if you get the time, it is hard to reorient your mind to think where you want to be in two months." Additionally, he says, the press views the press secretary differently when the two roles are combined. "They see the communications director as a propagandist making up the themes of the day, creating the lines, and the press interprets that role as being one of less than candor." But being known for honesty and integrity is crucial to a press secretary's reputation and effectiveness, he says. "You are compromised if you do both jobs." For best coordination, the two roles are often housed within the same office. Typical duties of the communications director (the long-term thinker) include strategizing, planning messages and themes, writing up a master schedule, monitoring cabinet departments on their upcoming press announcements, coordinating messages with them, planning out-of- town trips, supervising speech writing, and supervising research. Sometimes, he or she also monitors the news clipping office and handles communications with out-of-town media. In contrast, the job of the press secretary (the short-term thinker) includes handling press questions on a daily basis, initiating media contacts, talking to the press, and managing the news operation, from preparing press releases and fact sheets to arranging press conferences and interviews with government officials. Sometimes the communications director runs the office, and the press secretary reports to him or her. In the office of former Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, the communications director was in charge. He occasionally handled press questions if he knew a reporter well or if the topic was of particular interest to him. He rarely traveled with the governor. The press secretary, who reported to the communications director, and her staff handled all media questions, spoke "on the record," and traveled with the governor. The press secretary, like the communications director, had direct access to the governor. Each kept the other informed when he or she took on a media issue. Sometimes the press secretary runs the office, and the communications director reports to him or her. At the White House, the jobs of press secretary and communications director often have been split into two offices. The press secretary handles the daily press operation. The communications director manages long-range strategy, speech writing, and, often, out- of-town media. They have numerous meetings and coordinate their efforts and the overall administration message not only between themselves but together with the other senior executives in the White House. "It works well when there is coordination between the two factors, when you are involved in each other's organization, and when both teams know what the other is doing," says Marlin Fitzwater. To accomplish this coordination, Fitzwater included a communications officer in all of his meetings and had a press person from his office attend communications office meetings. A second crucial element, he says, is having personal compatibility between the two offices. "If either — the personal relationship or the organizational relationship — is missing, then you will have failure." Dividing Up the Work Working together is crucial. In one important ministry in a new government, communications duties are split among several offices. The spokesperson to the minister has no staff, not even a secretary, does his own faxing, answers his own phone, and speaks on behalf of the minister and, therefore, the ministry. The press office is a separate operation with its own director reporting to a deputy minister. Its staff of 12 handles research, press clippings, logistics, and out-of-town press inquiries. A third communications office, with a staff of three, does long-range communications and reports to a third deputy minister. The spokesperson, the director of press, and the communications manager meet infrequently, and their staffs never do. The chief of staff to the minister defends the arrangement because it means the minister's spokesperson can focus on the minister and not be burdened with administrative work. However, the spokesperson admits he feels overwhelmed and sometimes has a hard time getting information. Wouldn't it be better coordinated if the ministry's message were spoken in one focused voice, synchronized by the spokesperson to the minister? The spokesperson could still be spokesperson and have the press operation and the long-range communications function report to him. He could hire an administrative manager to handle the paperwork. Day-to-Day Activities of the Press Office Meetings: Frequent meetings may sometimes seem to fill a day, leaving time for little else, but they can be essential to a smoothly operating system. Their goals are the sharing of information, anticipation of news, and the preparation to handle it. In the United States, regular meetings between a spokesperson and government colleagues who are not in press relations, and between the spokesperson and the government press staff, usually occur daily, often several times a day. Many U.S. federal offices begin their days with early morning meetings of senior staff, including the spokesperson. Typically the meetings last about 30 to 45 minutes, with the senior staff member talking about the principal concerns of the day — the government official's top issues, schedule, and meetings, for example. Each staff member might then briefly discus upcoming issues, such as legislation, press interviews, budget questions, and newsworthy topics. The press secretary should provide information about press coverage that morning, what breaking news might affect the government official, and the message of the day, week, or month. Following this meeting, the spokesperson typically holds a second meeting with the press relations staff to debrief them on the critical issues of the day. This meeting follows the format of the senior staff meeting, with each member of the press staff commenting about what they are working on, reviewing the government official's schedule, and discussing media messages and topics that might be raised by reporters that day. The press secretary makes assignments, and the staff delegates questions to various cabinet offices for response. During the day, the staff may make up a briefing or issues book with government policies or positions on current, important topics. The press spokesperson can refer to this while preparing for a daily press briefing. At the White House, the press secretary usually includes the press officials to the first lady and the vice president in press staff meetings. Additionally, the press secretary or deputy press secretary has a daily phone call with his or her counterparts in the Departments of State and Defense and the Office of National Security Affairs to formulate a single message on foreign affairs issues. Top officials may have a weekly meeting to discuss politics and planning and how they relate to communications. The group looks at how event opportunities could be used to reinforce the president's agenda. Large departments with many regional offices and many bureaus under them do the same thing. At the U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, the spokesperson usually has a conference call every two weeks with the directors of information in its 10 regions to cover current and upcoming media issues. The press offices of many U.S. state governors are similar. The gubernatorial spokesperson may participate in a daily morning staff meeting with senior staff that the governor might attend or to which he or she might phone in to discuss the morning's press and events for the day. In some smaller states, the meetings might be held more infrequently, such as weekly. Many press spokespersons to governors also routinely have meetings with the press secretaries for the various state departments and agencies. One newly elected government official chose his campaign press secretary to be his spokesperson. Although the spokesperson had known the goal of the campaign — to win — since they had taken office he rarely had discussed the "current message" or theme with the government official. The focus was on getting measures passed. There were no meetings between the elected official and his press secretary and his senior staff to articulate and amend goals and assess progress. The spokesperson was left on his own to talk to the press. "How do you decide on your own what the message is?" the spokesperson asked. Press clipping and news monitoring: Government press offices usually do some kind of daily - and often twice a day — press clipping or news monitoring to inform their bosses and staff about happenings that could have an impact on their operations. In the United States, the press offices of most governors and federal agencies include staff who read, clip, duplicate, and circulate news stories to top officials, and might also prepare a compilation of television stories. Typically, the clippings are a composite of the most important stories — good and bad — followed by less important ones. Other press offices also subscribe to clipping services, which are private companies that track articles, often in smaller or regional publications. The White House summarizes as well as compiles news clippings, but many government agencies only do a compilation. In putting together a daily clipping or press monitor package, the first priority of the press spokesperson's office usually is tracking the news rather than summarizing it. Often, making copies of the most important articles — positive and negative — is enough. Rewriting a news article, no matter how brief, can consume much staff time. In one new government, the most senior staff in a press office daily clipped, pasted, and summarized articles from newspapers and magazines for the dozen top senior staff. Although 80 percent of the news came from television, there was no monitoring of TV as it was felt to be too expensive. The staff also compiled a monthly summary of news coverage. Might it have been more effective if the staff had:  Clipped and copied stories only?  Distributed these to more staff?  Used equipment from the department's TV studio to monitor television news?  Stopped analyzing the news and hired a private agency to do this monthly or quarterly?  Moved senior staff, who were monitoring the news, into the press relations department to work with the mainstream media?  Had junior staff cut and copy newspapers? Phone calls: In the United States, the press offices of the White House and the top-level departments have a duty officer system so that a press officer is available most hours, including evenings and weekends, to answer questions from the media. A duty officer system enables press offices to operate in the 24-hour-a-day news cycle; because it is often staffed by junior press officials, the main press secretary gets a break. Sometimes, when they are working on a big story, spokespersons give their cell or home phone numbers to the media - often getting the media representative's number in exchange — so questions can be answered after hours. If a press official has been working with a reporter on a story, this would preclude bringing in a new spokesperson who may be less knowledgeable about the subject. "I would rather have a reporter call me at home and get accurate and thorough information, as opposed to getting a sloppy story because the on- duty spokesperson wasn't as familiar with the information," says a public affairs officer with a U.S. military organization. Exchanging after-hours phone numbers or having a staff person on call after work hours is especially important in countries with several time zones. In some emerging democracies, government spokespersons contend that giving out their cell phone numbers means being accessible to the press, but this is not necessarily true. Having reporters call you on your cell phone eliminates the "filter" of a secretary or aide answering the phone, finding out who is calling, and determining the subject of the call. And it puts the spokesperson at the mercy of the press when he or she might not be prepared. Having an aide screen the call allows the press officer to be prepared. Also, having an aide answer the initial call means that someone is always able to take the media's questions, and it allows the spokesperson to answer the most important call first and be ready with an informed response when doing so. It is essential, however, that a spokesperson call back a reporter promptly. And it is important that a spokesperson keep the cell phone switched on. Otherwise, the press will go elsewhere for information. "Spokespeople should always be available," says Juleanna Glover, press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney. "Giving out cell phone numbers wholesale is not advisable, but staff answering phones should always feel they can transfer a reporter to your phone once that reporter has called on a landline." In one European state, the press secretary to a foreign minister was not aware that Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic had been charged with war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague when a reporter called him directly on his cell phone requesting a statement. Because the press secretary did not know about the war crimes charges, "I appeared totally stupid," he admitted later. "You don't have to answer a question immediately," says Joni Inman of the National Association of Government Communicators. "You have a right not to be ambushed. It is better to get back to a reporter than to misspeak." Adds Sheila Tate, former spokesperson for First Lady Nancy Reagan, "You can say 'you caught me at a bad time. What is your deadline? Let me get back to you.' " Putting Workers Where the Work Is Sometimes, handling media problems effectively does not mean spending more money, hiring more staff, or buying more equipment. It just means shifting resources. On paper, the media office in a ministry had an enormous communications staff. But the number of staff dealing with the press was miniscule. Most of the employees worked on ministerial weekly or monthly publications that were for sale. Ministry officials felt that this was the best way to communicate directly with citizens. Once, after the fall of a previous communist regime, the publications had filled a void for news, but this was no longer the case. Plummeting sales to the public meant that the ministry's newspapers and magazines had become, in essence, employee publications. Television dominated the country's news. Yet the ministry not only did not monitor television news, but it had no one to deal with TV reporters. The ministry's small press staff had no access to the Internet or e-mail and had one computer that was for word processing only. The bulk of the personnel and equipment were in the publications and TV production sections of the ministry. The spokespersons in the press section felt overwhelmed with the number of media inquiries, and reporters complained about getting little information and having a slow response from the press unit. The ministry would have been well served to shift its resources — people and equipment — to where its citizens got their news: independent television and print media. The Need for Coordination Any successful public relations effort depends heavily on coordination with other departments within your agency, with staff in your agency, and with departments outside your agency. "It is really important that everyone within an organization understand its priorities and mission so that they reflect the same agenda," says Susan King, former assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Departments of Labor and of Housing and Urban Development. "That does not mean speaking in lockstep, but if people don't understand the mission and priorities, they will not speak to the public in a coordinated way, and the organization will be diminished as an effective force." Why is coordination important? For one, it ensures that a program will get off to a good start. Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater asked the communications directors of each cabinet department to report all announcements they felt could make front page news. He did it with the idea that the president could announce some of each department's major news and that he would know about any controversial news before it happened. Second, someone in another ministry or department could be working on the same program or issue and could be at cross-purposes. The press could rightly ask: If a governmental leader can't keep two ministries on the same track on the same issue, and if two ministries can't work together, just how good a leader or minister is he or she? Third, even when two government officials agree on an issue, combining their efforts will make a message stronger. Fourth, you might be surprised and embarrassed if others' efforts are publicized by the press and you don't know about it. In one instance, a cabinet official announced a major initiative without clearing it with the White House. While the policy announcement received much media attention, its reversal by the president received even more. The cabinet official was left embarrassed and was portrayed as having been undermined in the press. Finally, just exchanging the calendars of government officials is not enough. The press and public affairs offices should coordinate their plans as well. When government agencies schedule major press conferences at the same time, journalists have complained loudly. "Which press conference are we supposed to pick?" one reporter complained to a spokesperson. "Don't make our job so hard." The U.S. military, by contrast, emphasizes message coordination. Daily, near the conclusion of the work day, U.S. Navy public affairs offices around in the world e-mail to the Navy's central public affairs office in Washington a rundown of major media inquiries and newsworthy events for that day. The central office summarizes the major inquiries and issues, and e-mails this back to the public affairs offices. The spokespersons contact each other on common issues and coordinate their answers. "This prevents the press from 'double teaming' by going to various parts of the Navy and trying to get us to say different things," says one spokesperson. "Very often I have found the same reporter called a colleague in a different city with similar questions. Knowing about all the major press activity allows me and my colleagues to coordinate our answers so we don't appear in conflict, and it helps us understand what angle a reporter may really be taking in a story." Officials in many coalition governments complain that coordination is impossible because there are representatives of widely different political parties in key positions throughout a government. This hurdle does not belie the fact that coordination is just as essential in a coalition government as it is in a winner-take-all election. THE COMMUNICATIONS PLAN • The Message Starts With the Leader • Creating a Communications Plan • Working Out a Media Campaign The first step in successfully communicating with the public is developing a plan for getting out your message. Your message is your theme with an objective, such as to persuade someone to do something or to support something. It is capturing your ideas in a way that can be understood and accepted by others. For example, if you want citizens to pay lower taxes, your message might be about cutting taxes to stimulate the economy. Why not just throw out this message to the public and let it take its course? Because, chances are you won't get anywhere if you do. You wouldn't get into your car and drive without knowing where you were going, what roads you were going to take, what you were going to do when you got there, and whom you wanted to see when you arrived. That would be a waste of time, effort, and gasoline. You need to plan where you are headed and how you will get there - and even what will happen if you have an accident in your car or a mishap in your plan. This is also true in developing a message, putting it into a communications plan, devising a media campaign to carry it out, and assessing the strategy as you implement it. If you don't know how to get to where you want to go, you won't get there. If you want to make economic changes in the way the government is run, for instance, you need to communicate why you are proposing what you want to do, what effect it will have and on whom, how much it will cost or how much it will save, how you will know whether or not the program reaches its goals, and how long it will take to do so. The communications plan is your map to reach your destination; the media campaign represents the roads to get there. The Message Starts With the Leader The government public affairs/press office plans and implements a media campaign, but that can be done only when the government leader is on board and has presented clear goals. Developing goals and themes does not rest with the press office. Ideally, the top official, working with his press secretary and senior staff, has articulated three to five objectives or themes that he or she would like to accomplish long term — say, by the end of the year or the end of his or her term in office. (More than five major themes can be too much for the public to absorb.) As an example, these are five that one recently democratized state considered: advance European Union reforms, achieve military reforms to get closer to NATO membership, achieve civil service reforms, achieve privatization goals, push through agricultural reforms. The themes should be articulated repeatedly and made a focal point of the administration. As much as possible, every action the official takes — from delivering a speech, to giving a television interview, to supporting legislation — should center around these long-term objectives. Certainly, the official will have to develop short-term messages to deal with immediate crises as they crop up, but the overall goals should constantly be repeated and returned to. A consistent message is most useful when a new issue requires acceptance by the public. Misunderstandings often stem from a lack of basic information and discussion. Thus, the government must provide clear, repeated, and open communication on the issue in order to earn public understanding and acceptance for its objectives. Governmental leaders sometimes learn this the hard way: when they are not re-elected to office. Surveys in one recently democratized state showed that the citizens knew they had to suffer some difficult economic times to get to an improved economy, but they did not know that was also the plan of the governmental leaders. The government articulated no message. Government officials had said they wanted a stronger economy, but they had never spelled out what steps were being taken to get there, why certain measures had to be taken, how their plan would work, when better times could be expected, who would be affected and how, and where the biggest impact would be felt. Instead, they focused their attention on the legislature and let the press set the agenda. To the public, they appeared to be lurching from crisis to crisis. Creating a Communications Plan Once the message is decided upon and the goals are identified, the government press office writes up a plan to move the leader's vision into reality. A first step is research, often by the long-term communications staff, into how the goals can be achieved and what it will mean in the interim and long terms. With the goals and research in hand, the press staff can do a public relations audit. This is an assessment of how the action and goals are viewed by those within the organization and those outside. It involves talking to government executives to gain their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the organization or a specific program or a plan, and talking to the public to determine their views. By evaluating the two perceptions, it is possible to write up a public relations "balance sheet" of strengths and weaknesses and then develop a plan on how to capitalize on the strengths and deal with the weaknesses. A communications plan can also be written without an audit. Begin with themes. Decide what you want to achieve at the end of a year or legislative period, or at the end of a term in office. Develop a focused and clear message. Ask yourself these questions:  Is there a statement of principles?  What goals do I want to achieve? Pick a realistic number — no more than five a year — on which to focus, and then break them down into what you would like to achieve this year, next year, and so forth.  What do I want the media to communicate?  What messages are needed for women, for students, for the elderly, for military personnel, for other audiences?  What media strategy will communicate each message? You might decide to emphasize a theme a week. You could have sub-themes within an overall theme. For example, if improving education were a theme, subthemes might be improving teacher education, involving parents more in the educational system, lengthening the school day or year, and so forth. Beginning with this kind of analysis, you can formulate a media campaign that you can use to educate people, influence public opinion, persuade opinion leaders, generate debate, and get people to take an action. "To communicate effectively, you must identify a need; prioritize what is most important; decide what you want to communicate; have it be relevant to your audience; and then repeat it," says former White House spokesperson Dee Dee Myers. "You can't say everything. You have to decide what is most important to say, focus on whom you are saying it to, and say it in terms that make sense to them. Then you have to repeat the message over and over, because people are busy and have a lot of information coming at them in a 24-hour news cycle." Working Out a Media Campaign In working out a media campaign, you would:  Devise a plan on how to reach your goals.  Break the plan down by assignments.  Write out a schedule of who does what and by what date, and update it frequently.  Appoint a supervisor to monitor the assignments to ensure that work is on schedule.  Change goals and deadlines as needed.  Meet regularly with those involved in the plan — everyone from press secretary to the chief of staff, the scheduler, the speechwriter, and the legislative aide.  Approve the plan with the group.  Implement the plan.  Use events to reinforce the themes.  Put the goals into legislation.  Focus on the goals in speeches.  Target various subtexts of your message to your different audiences.  Have surrogates or outside experts give the same message on your goals as you do.  Answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of typical news stories to help move your vision into a message that can be readily understood. In regard to this last point, it is important to be prepared to tell the public:  What the program is and what it is not.  Why it is needed.  How it will affect them.  What will happen in the short term.  What will happen in the long term.  How this is different from what is already happening.  What the government's responsibility in the new program is.  What the timeline is and when changes will take effect.  What will happen if it doesn't work.  How the public will know if it has been successful.  What action the public is being asked to take. One way to keep your good story going, says former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, is to talk about what you are going to say, then say it, and then talk about what you said. MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT Once you have decided on goals, themes, and an overall communications plan, success or failure will depend on your ability to carry it out in an orderly, detailed way. Here are some approaches that have proved useful at this stage. Annual calendar: Look at your annual calendar — month by month — and fill in major recurring events. In the United States, for example, the president gives a "State of the Union" address to the country, usually in January, at the time the annual budget is released; there are the Group of Seven and Group of Eight meetings in the summer; and the United Nations session opens in the fall. These significant recurring events are linchpins in the White House media calendar in terms of repeating key themes. Your own major themes might fit into similar recurring events. If privatization is a goal, for instance, that could be a major topic in an annual budget address. Pick a periodic theme: After you fill in the "must do" events on the calendar, pick a theme for certain time periods, such as a week or a month, relating to one of the five goals to allow you to alternate the "must do" events with your themes. One week, the theme might be agricultural reform, and you would schedule different events that are agriculturally focused. The next week, the theme might be civil service reform, and events would be undertaken to fit that theme. Make a master calendar: Write the theme for each week on a calendar for at least six months ahead. The calendar will need to be updated frequently because unplanned events will arise and you will need to react. Select and develop a message for each theme: For example, if the theme for the second week in January is agricultural reform, you would develop a message relating to that theme. Each theme would likely have several subthemes. For example, one subtheme for agricultural reform might be the government's changing agricultural subsidies; another might be new methods for increasing farmers' productivity. During the second week of January, when the theme is agricultural reform, you might emphasize the subtheme of changing agricultural subsidies. You would fill the other weeks in January with your other main themes. Then, you would return to the agricultural theme in February, perhaps emphasizing the subtheme of increasing farmers' productivity. In March, you would again emphasize an agricultural subtheme, perhaps returning to changing agricultural subsidies. When you pick a theme, know whether or not it relates to legislation or government action. For instance, if the government plans to consider agricultural reforms this year, you would stress that theme before any votes on agriculture are made in the legislature. Make sure that your message is simple, clear, and direct. Think about how you would like a headline to be written about it and how you would like a first paragraph of a story to read. This will help you refine your message. For the message of reducing government agricultural subsidies, for example, you could pick three points to emphasize. Having more than three could create confusion and result in their being forgotten. Your points would be repeated over and over throughout the week. For example, you could say that cutting government subsidies would: (1) allow more government funds to be spent on other needed programs, (2) open up more foreign investment in farming, (3) increase private investment and make agriculture more profitable and efficient. Identify audiences, media outlets, and locations: Ask these questions: Whom do you want to hear your message? Maybe you have several audiences, such as the elderly, students, or women, and each needs a differently focused message. What media outlets are there to deliver your messages? Are there respected third party allies who can reinforce your message? If your message is about agriculture, which farmers' groups would you like to reach? To which media do they pay the most attention?
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