Are Idaho's public information officers public servants or spin doctors?

sberg@idahostatesman.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • ABOUT SVEN BERG

    Sven has covered Boise city government for the Statesman since July 2012. He enjoys playing basketball and hosting barbecues.

  • Idaho’s top 10

    Here are the highest-paid state and local government communications personnel in the Treasure Valley:

    Name • salary • *department/agency

    Greg Hahn • $106,704 • Boise State University

    Craig Quintana • $98,238 • Ada County Highway District

    Chris Cooney • $95,888 • University of Idaho

    Pam Juker • $92,081 • Idaho Department of Agriculture

    Eric Exline • $85,845 • Meridian School District

    Mark Warbis • $84,073 • Governor’s office

    Cindy Johnson • $83,990 • University of Idaho

    Bob Fick • $83,138 • Idaho Department of Labor

    Megan Ronk • $81,619 • Idaho Department of Commerce

    Stefany Bales • $80,018 • University of Idaho

    *The state of Idaho and most local governments list hourly wages for employees. In those cases, the Statesman calculated annual salaries based on a 2,080-hour work year. Sources: Boise State University, ACHD, University of Idaho, Idaho State Controller, school districts.

  • How many people, how much money?

    Nobody keeps a detailed list of government employees who specialize in communicating with the public. Using the state salary database and interviews with local governments and other agencies, the Statesman compiled a list of at least some of the public information officers paid by state and local government.

    Including universities and colleges, Idaho state government employs at least 128 full-time public information, communications and marketing specialists. They earn, on average, about $49,000 a year.

    Here’s a look at how much state departments and Treasure Valley governments spend on communications staff.

    See a full list of state and local PR personnel at IdahoStatesman.com.

    Note: Kuna and Caldwell do not employ public information officers.

    Agency • number of staffers • total agency comm. salaries

    ACHD • 2 • $146,515

    Ada County • 4 • $213,904

    Idaho Dept. of Agriculture • 1 • $92,082

    Idaho Attorney General • 1 • $74,110

    City of Boise • 8 • $443,827

    Boise School District • 2 • *$73,115

    Boise State University • 20 • $1,003,849

    Canyon County • 1 • $40,000

    College of Western Idaho • 1 • $63,036

    Idaho Dept. of Commerce • 2 • $119,621

    Idaho Commission for Libraries • 1 • $36,254

    Idaho Dept. of Correction • 1 • $51,750

    Idaho Division of Building Safety • 1 • $55,765

    City of Eagle • 1 • $27,040

    Eastern Idaho Technical College • 1 • $45,520

    Idaho Dept. of Education • 1 • $74,880

    Idaho Dept. of Env. Quality • 1 • $44,387

    Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game • 4 • $234,894

    Governor’s office • 2 • $157,976

    Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare • 2 • $115,523

    Idaho Health Districts • 1-66 • $304,678

    Idaho State University • 13 • $566,279

    Idaho State Police • 1 • $62,400

    Idaho Industrial Commission • 1 • $42,432

    Idaho Dept. of Labor • 3 • $189,654

    Idaho Dept. of Lands • 1 • $53,040

    Lewis-Clark State College • 4 • $173,429

    Idaho Lottery Commission • 1 • $53,248

    City of Meridian • 1 • $45,000

    Meridian School District • 1 • $85,845

    Idaho Military Division • 1 • $57,533

    City of Nampa • 1 • $64,251

    Nampa School District • 1 • $65,771

    Idaho Dept. of Parks and Rec. • 1 • $51,834

    Public Employees Retirement System of Idaho • 1 • $52,000

    Idaho Public TV • 2 • $80,662

    Idaho Public Utilities Commission • 1 • $69,347

    State Board of Education • 1 • $76,814

    Idaho State Tax Commission • 2 • $111,883

    Idaho Dept. of Transportation • 6 • $282,838

    University of Idaho • 45 • $1,974,711

    Valley Regional Transit • 1 • $66,664

    TOTAL • 152 • $7,633,051

    * Two people whose duties involves PR part of the time. Sources: Idaho State Controller, Boise State University, University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Lewis-Clark State College, Ada County, Canyon County, ACHD, city of Boise, city of Meridian, city of Nampa, Valley Regional Transit, school districts, city of Spokane, Wash.

  • MARKETING IDAHO COLLEGES, BRANDS IS A MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR UNDERTAKING

    Idaho colleges don’t just have public relations people pumping out press releases.

    They have marketing and communications departments that tell the universities’ stories and get information into the hands of prospective students, donors and alumni.

    The departments include staff to design Web pages, shoot video, take pictures, publish magazines, arrange tours or dress campuses in banners.

    University of Idaho has a staff of more than 30 with a budget in fiscal year 2013 of $1.7 million, said Chris Cooney, senior director of marketing and communications.

    U of I centralized all its communications staff into one office to help the school “follow a cohesive brand,” he said.

    Boise State University’s marketing and communications office employs more than a dozen people with an annual budget of about $1 million, said Greg Hahn, associate vice president for communications and marketing.

    Hahn’s department also coordinates social media — with about 200 different offshoots campuswide — along with the job of telling the school’s story.

    Idaho State University has a department of roughly 10 people and a total budget of $1 million.

    College marketing departments are akin to the marketing departments in companies. They have identified markets and are pitching a product — in this case, the college experience.

    “Our mission is to tell a cohesive story,” Cooney said.

    Bill Roberts: 377-6408

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 it’s 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 University’s public policy and administration department, said governments are responding to the explosion in the number of media outlets and the public’s demand for information.

“I can’t even name all the media outlets. We have Twitter. We have Facebook, etc., etc.,” she said. “There’s an expectation that government needs to be increasingly more transparent, and because we have more media outlets, really, someone needs to do that. And it’s 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. That’s more than Salt Lake City’s five public information officers, but not as many as Spokane’s 10 full-time communications employees and three part-timers.

List of communications and marketing employees and salaries by agency:

Online Database by Caspio
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THE RUNAROUND

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 sheriff’s spokeswoman Andrea Dearden described the hunt for him and victim Hannah Anderson.

When a big fire breaks out in Boise, or there’s a shooting, it’s 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.

Here’s how it works: Let’s 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 city’s 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, they’re message control. They become advocates,” said Marty Trillhaase, editorial page editor for the Lewiston Tribune.

It’s one thing for private companies to pay their own people to spin the message, Trillhaase said. Government flacks answer to a different master.

“Who’s paying for this? You’re a public employee,” Trillhaase said. “If you’re working for a company, then you’re being paid by the company. But if you’re working for government, you’re getting paid by the taxpayer, presumably to help the taxpayer know what’s going on. Who’s 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 Trillhaase’s 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 doesn’t 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.

“Wouldn’t it have been nice to believe that the Enron (public information officers) were speaking with integrity?” Fredericksen said. “And wouldn’t it be nice to believe that mortgage companies and the banking industry, etc., are speaking with integrity? It’s unfortunate that we’re 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 aren’t 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. “It’s about effective communication and making sure you have all the information you need. It’s 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 they’re 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 you’re always accessible, making sure that if you don’t know something, you’ll get back and that you’ll 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 county’s 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 district’s 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 don’t have many.

Traditionally, flacks have gone into the public information game after working for the news media, often for many years. There’s 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 you’d expect in a journalist’s code.

The society’s 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 code’s professional values.

This list of communications and marketing officers is sortable by name and salary:

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.

ELIMINATING THE BARRIER

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is one agency that doesn’t 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 that’s 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 who’s an information officer, whether for a business or for a nonprofit or the public sector, to try to communicate, to try to translate what we’re learning.”

Department of Environmental Quality Director Curt Fransen sees it a different way. He tries to thin the barriers between media and his staff.

“We’ve 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 aren’t very good at talking to the media and can’t 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 Society’s 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.

“They’re 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, don’t share.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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