Governments are spending more than ever to talk about themselves.
Reliable numbers are difficult to come by, but most people agree the number of public information officers on public payrolls has increased, especially in the past 20 years. City and county governments, state agencies, universities, school districts, even sewer, irrigation and ambulance districts pay people to, at least part of the time, communicate with the public.
The question is why.
Some people, such as Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman, say its because governments are working harder to spin their message to inflate their achievements and minimize their missteps.
Too many government agencies have too many people working for them whose job it is simply to put the best spin on that agency, or that branch or division of government, Hoffman said. It diminishes government transparency. It makes it harder for people to interact with the folks they elect and who are accountable to them.
Others see a different side. Elizabeth Fredericksen, a professor in Boise State Universitys public policy and administration department, said governments are responding to the explosion in the number of media outlets and the publics demand for information.
I cant even name all the media outlets. We have Twitter. We have Facebook, etc., etc., she said. Theres an expectation that government needs to be increasingly more transparent, and because we have more media outlets, really, someone needs to do that. And its technically quite challenging for a lot of people.
In 2013, the state of Idaho, not counting its universities and colleges, will pay at least 45 people more than $2.5 million to talk to the news media and promote its agencies. Boise State University has at least 20 people in marketing and communications who collectively earn about $1 million a year. The University of Idaho almost doubles that figure.
The city of Boise has eight communications specialists whose collective salaries add up to more than $443,000. Thats more than Salt Lake Citys five public information officers, but not as many as Spokanes 10 full-time communications employees and three part-timers.
List of communications and marketing employees and salaries by agency:
Usually, the public hears from information officers often called flacks through the news media. When suspected kidnapper James DiMaggio showed up in the Idaho wilderness, television audiences and news readers around the world watched as Ada County sheriffs spokeswoman Andrea Dearden described the hunt for him and victim Hannah Anderson.
When a big fire breaks out in Boise, or theres a shooting, its Lynn Hightower, not the police or fire chief, who usually gets information to the public.
Flacks are the gatekeepers for agencies and governments. Often, they want reporters to talk to them first about shootings, fires, utility rate increases, budgets or other issues.
Heres how it works: Lets say a reporter wants to do a story on a new phosphate-removal system at the city sewer plant. He or she has to call the citys public information staffers, who talk to the sewer experts. Flacks discourage reporters from talking directly to the experts.
The flack either relays the information to the reporter or sets up an interview with the experts. A flack often chaperones the interview to help the experts convey information or to control the message, depending on your point of view.
This arrangement causes friction between the media and public information teams. On one hand, reporters rely on public information specialists to get them information they need quickly and accurately. On the other hand, they complain that flacks spin information instead of presenting it unvarnished.
There are those who, for some reason, they go to work in that trade and they drink the Kool-Aid and, boom, theyre message control. They become advocates, said Marty Trillhaase, editorial page editor for the Lewiston Tribune.
Its one thing for private companies to pay their own people to spin the message, Trillhaase said. Government flacks answer to a different master.
Whos paying for this? Youre a public employee, Trillhaase said. If youre working for a company, then youre being paid by the company. But if youre working for government, youre getting paid by the taxpayer, presumably to help the taxpayer know whats going on. Whos your primary duty to?
Trillhaase said government public information officers too often place their loyalty with the people who cut their checks rather than the taxpaying public.
In 1995, to Trillhaases way of thinking, the Idaho Legislature made it harder for state government flacks to maintain their independence. Before then, they were classified employees. In order to fire them, their bosses had to go through a process that explained what the flack was doing wrong and how to fix it.
House Bill 299 made flacks at-will employees meaning they could be fired without cause or process. It also encourages flacks to present their agencies message the way their bosses want, Trillhaase said.
It makes it so your boss can fire you if he doesnt like you, he said.
When it comes to folks who work for private business, Fredericksen is less likely than Trillhaase to give them a pass for distorting information. Private companies decisions and the way they present information affect the public too, she said.
Wouldnt it have been nice to believe that the Enron (public information officers) were speaking with integrity? Fredericksen said. And wouldnt it be nice to believe that mortgage companies and the banking industry, etc., are speaking with integrity? Its unfortunate that were highly tolerant of deceit or misdirection in the business community or even the nonprofit community and less so in the public sector. We need to hold everyone to a higher standard.
HOW TO BE A GOOD FLACK
Ada County spokeswoman Jessica Donald said message control and obstruction arent her style.
Unless I have an emergency, I will drop everything and I will focus on getting you the information you need as quickly as possible, Donald said. Its about effective communication and making sure you have all the information you need. Its not about withholding information.
That attitude is a core part of being a good public information officer, said Rick Dale, a spokesman for a cleanup contractor at the Idaho National Laboratory west of Idaho Falls. Access to the right people, knowledge of the work theyre doing and diligence are important, Dale said, but building a trusting relationship with the media is indispensable.
And that takes being honest, making sure you get back to reporters when they have questions, making sure that youre always accessible, making sure that if you dont know something, youll get back and that youll follow through, he said.
THE DARK SIDE
Public information officers do more than talk to the media. They write press releases. They set up business lunches for their bosses. They hang posters to promote events. They make sure ribbon-cuttings run smoothly.
Donald estimated that 20 percent of her time goes to communications with the media and public. The rest of the time she handles internal communications for the countys 1,700 employees, works on website development, helps coordinate disaster preparedness planning and takes on other tasks.
Boise School District spokesman Dan Hollar spends about half his time overseeing the districts community education program.
Boise Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Amy Stahl helps coordinate all kinds of programs, such as promoting healthy food in schools and efforts to put trees in areas of the city that dont have many.
Traditionally, flacks have gone into the public information game after working for the news media, often for many years. Theres a theme that emerges when you ask why they left journalism. They loved the news, but the pay was too little, the hours too long and unpredictable, the stress greater than the reward.
When they take public information jobs, their media compatriots sometimes call it going to the Dark Side.
Trillhaase, the long-time Idaho journalist now in Lewiston, said ex-reporters tend to make better flacks. Experience in the media helps them anticipate the news cycle and reporters needs, he said.
It just gives them an insight into how the media works, Trillhaase said.
The Public Relations Society of America, a national organization of public information officers, has a code of ethics that looks a lot like what youd expect in a journalists code.
The societys code embraces honesty, independence, expertise and fairness as professional values. It talks about fostering informed decisions through accurate and truthful information. It advises members to reveal conflicts of interest. It says public information officers are advocates for their employers, but should provide objective counsel to them.
We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest, according to the loyalty section of the codes professional values.
This list of communications and marketing officers is sortable by name and salary:
ELIMINATING THE BARRIER
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is one agency that doesnt employ public information officers, at least not in its Boise headquarters. Its Idaho Falls office does have one.
From a certain point of view, this is surprising, since the agency does a lot of work thats technically complex and difficult to explain.
As Fredericksen, the BSU professor, points out, many agencies like to have people who are familiar with the details of their work and specialize in explaining that information to media types who, in turn, relay it to the general public.
Some of these concepts, it takes an enormous amount of knowledge base to translate to simple terms, Fredericksen said. The more detailed and complex the subject matter, the more you rely upon someone whos an information officer, whether for a business or for a nonprofit or the public sector, to try to communicate, to try to translate what were learning.
Department of Environmental Quality Director Curt Fransen sees it a different way. He tries to thin the barriers between media and his staff.
Weve had kind of a policy of trying to put media contacts in direct contact with people that are actually working on the project rather than it gets explained to me and I try to explain it to you. We try to cut through that a little bit, Fransen said. There obviously is some limitation to that because sometimes, some people arent very good at talking to the media and cant get them the information they want.
THE LINE IN THE SAND
Before he launched the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Hoffman spent years as a reporter, including at the Statesman. Then he worked as a flack for the Idaho Department of Agriculture. He said his superiors at the department sometimes pressured him to spin embarrassing information. That, more than any other factor, he said, led to his decision to leave the agency.
Hoffman agrees with the Public Relations Societys code of ethics for public information officers. A good flack, particularly one who works for the government, needs to be something of an independent operator, he said.
Theyre writing your paycheck, so you have to be loyal to the agency, but at the same time, you have to be able to look the agency in the eye and say, This is a problem, Hoffman said. In some sense, you have to represent a viewpoint that they, perhaps, dont share.
Sven Berg: 377-6275