in Houston, Texas
Secretary of State, others implement command-and-control public relations, thwart public access to information from the source
Thursday, Jul 29, 2010, 06:06PM CST
By Steve Miller

It was not all that long ago that the Texas Secretary of State's office was a helpful font of information.

Officials with direct knowledge of a given subject gave professional opinions and imparted their wisdom to journalists, who in turn provided that information to the public.


Today, not so much. A call to the Secretary of State's office usually yields a prolonged wait and often the muttering of a given official that he or she cannot speak directly to the media but must first route the call to someone in communications

 

coffee filtersFiltered or unfiltered?

This generally involves a delay, which holds up the flow of a story and decreases the chance of getting detailed, candid interviews.

Election Division Director Ann McGeehan, for example, is a walking and talking encyclopedia of information about the election process. She has been with the office since 1989 - four administrations - and her wealth of knowledge is a gift to the public.


We recently stopped by the capital to watch a Senate meeting of the state affairs committee regarding elections. McGeehan was a witness, and after she spoke, McGeehan sat down to watch the rest of the proceedings.


We recalled the days when one could approach her, pick up the phone or shoot an e-mail to her, and she would reply quickly.

 

On this day, she said could not speak to a reporter. “Things are a little different,” she said, when reminded of those previous times of access.


Things are different, indeed. A shrinking pool of news gatherers and the micromanagement of industries both public and private have collided and created a cottage industry of public relations spin.


At the Texas Workforce Commission, we recently directly called an official, Jonathan Babiak, the commission's deputy director of appellate services. His number was easy enough to find, although we wonder if the publicly available list is long for the world. If taxpayer-funded officials can't speak to the public, why bother?


Babiak refused to talk to a reporter and promised that someone from communications would be calling. A couple hours later, spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt called.


"It's policy here that all calls from the media go through communications," Hatchitt said. In the name of fairness, we wanted to speak to Babiak about comments he reportedly made at a public meeting and to confirm whether indeed he even made the comments. The TWC's policy effectively impeded that confirmation and that fairness.


In the process of writing a couple of recent stories on the Houston Independent School District, spokesman Norm Uhl repeatedly asserted that all calls to public officials must go through him. Then a Texas Watchdog reporter was admonished for actually contacting the officials who, we presume, are able to speak for themselves in the name of personal accountability.

"It has come to my attention that you have, once again, been contacting HISD employees directly. HISD policy states that ALL media requests MUST come through the press office, with the exception of filing open records requests with Pam Kaiser. All other media are following the policy. Please, adhere to our policy, as well.Thanks, Norm Uhl Manager, HISD Media Relations Dept. 713-556-6393"

If we allow it, the line between journalism and PR will be blurred until it exists no more. The business difficulties of newspapers have spilled all kinds of talent into the street, and there are plenty of reasons firms want ex-journos as press people.

 

PR people see the diminishing media staffs as an opportunity. We read this article from the website of the Public Relations Society of America and cringe as John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., tells an interviewer:

"Now more than ever, we need good public relations people who give us timely, quality information. Everybody’s working harder, and so we must get good information quickly to do our jobs better."

Information from a PR person is never going to be as credible - or as timely or compelling - as that from the actual newsmaker. But control of the media seems to be the goal more and more.


A driving force in this trend is the shotgun blast of media outlets both credible and not so credible, said Amos Gelb, an associate professor at George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.


"Somebody knows that Facebook, Twitter and nasty pieces of work are causing trouble out there and running amok, and they are terrified that some good person is going to say something impolitic or impolite or, God forbid, something correct, and around every corner is a WikiLeaks," Gelb said. "It's very easy for them to do the knee-jerk thing and say nothing."


Gelb added, "[Officials] are being told that they have to be careful what they say because privacy issues, all kinds of laws, mean the most innocuous comment you make could cause significant issues and bring on a lawsuit."


Large corporations have always used expansive public relations offices. They are private institutions, of course, and have accountability to shareholders rather than the public. But once you get that taxpayer-funded paycheck, we'd contend that you'd better be prepared to speak for yourself. Offices like the state Secretary of State have no reason to prevent employees from speaking to journalists. 


And with regard to that, the aforementioned Senate committee meeting on elections was held July 14. After going through the communications office, as McGeehan asked, we finally spoke on July 21. The questions were few, and all we wanted was some background from an authority. The conversation lasted 16 minutes. With a communications person on the line.


One week wait for 16 minutes. We understand vacations and meetings. We recently spoke to an elections administrator from a fairly large county who was on vacation; she called from her vacation spot.


We speak on the phone to people at 9 p.m.


So the week delay from the SOS office strikes us as either disregard or disorganization. 


On the morning of July 20, we sent an email to one of the communications people at the SOS to continue our story on elections. Three simple questions about mail-in ballot rosters. The day ended with zero response. Instead we reached an elections administrator in a small county in South Texas who helpfully provided the answers.


And there's more. Earlier this year, the name Paul Miles came up in a conversation as a good source of legal information on elections at the Secretary of State's office. We called Miles, and he seemed ready to give us some help. Until we further identified as a reporter.


“You’ll have to go through communications,” he instructed, sounding like a robot. The conversation was over.


The next day, we were granted an interview. With a communications person on the line.

 

Just when did this delaying process begin at the SOS office?

 

“It looks like the policy we have in place has been there since 2005," Ashley Burton, deputy director of communications, said. "The thought is that it’s [our] job to disseminate information. And we bring in experts when it becomes technical.”


We asked for a copy of the policy. This was Wednesday, July 21. We’re still waiting.


Because of the muddled process for gaining assistance from the office, to get timely information related to election policy and procedure in our own state we have resorted to going to a guru of election law at the National Conference of State Legislatures. All because our own state officials can't take the time to talk to us.

 

The work of the SOS is a perfect example of good government gone bad. The process is bogged down, and the public is poorly served. And it's catching.


We put out calls and emails to a number of journalism and PR groups and individuals, including the Public Relations Society of America, several professors who handle PR courses and the Public Relations Student Society of America. One them got back with us, the aforementioned Gelb, although the vice president of the student society offered us this on Friday:

"I reached out to you earlier today with a few journalist names from [George Washington University], however, I will not be able to assist you with that information for the article any longer." 

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of coffee filters by flickr user G & A Sattler, used via a Creative Commons license.
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