Earlier this year a federal public information officer told a room full of journalists that a reporter had published something the PIO had said which he had thought was “off the record.” So, the PIO said, adamantly, he decided he would no longer respond to the reporter’s contacts. He also told his staff not to respond.
The PIO, inadvertently, recognized the elephant in the room with the prohibitions against reporters and staff speaking to each other without going through the public information office. Those restrictions then become a choke point that is a powerful tool for controlling reporting and can be used however the agency wishes. The public and press need never know what manipulation is happening and why.That's something reporters admit to each other sometimes. Last year I helped collect examples of PIOs controlling, delaying or manipulating conversations. The majority of reporters who gave examples, asked (pleaded in some cases) for anonymity. That’s because if they want to do any future reporting on that entity (agency, hospital, etc.) they must ask the same office for permission to talk to anyone.
Is it even credible the agency will never use that control to protect itself from negative reporting? Or that the control will never be used for political manipulation?
(Note: For now I’m setting a policy of not identifying public information officers in this blog, if it doesn’t seem necessary. That is because the responsibility for the censorship of prohibiting all reporting unless it’s under the PIO surveillance rests squarely with agencies’ leadership. The PIOs are mandated to do it.)