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The Tug of War Between Journalists and the Obama Administration in Defining Transparency

Obama Press Conference

Naturally, journalists want more from the Obama administration.

More openness.

More access.

More information.

Given that the journalist’s agenda will always differ from the government’s agenda, it’s inevitable that a contentious dynamic shadows the relationship. This seems healthy to me so I wasn’t surprised to stumble across a recent letter from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) addressed to the President asking for greater transparency.

Ironically, I think the letter was more of a PR ploy and not exactly well done. Then again, it appears the organization’s version of a PR function is to hire an aspiring journalist who just graduated in May to fill the role of “communications coordinator.”

Here’s the content of the letter with my commentary:

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, D.C
July 8, 2014

Mr. President,

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

In a form of journalistic jujitsu, the SPJ nicely turns the President’s words against him. But that last line “… take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in” brings together more clichés than a 7th grade English class.

Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship – an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.

Call The New York Times or The Washington Post or any major publication to request a meeting with the editor-in-chief, and what happens? You are quickly shuttled to the PR department who then determines whether you are “worthy.” This is how all organizations bring method to the madness. Of course, the process can be abused, but censorship? Puhleeze!

The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.

I suppose it’s all in how you define “openness.” As I’ve written in previous posts, the Obama administration gets “owned media,” establishing a new benchmark for how a government entity essentially becomes a media property in its own right with multiple channels to reach the masses.

White house owned media

Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely.

The data seems to indicate that when a journalist interviews someone from the federal government, he or she is increasingly accompanied by a PR person. Can you imagine?

When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

Now we’re getting somewhere. I completely agree with the SPJ’s position that journalists should not have to submit questions in advance. As I’ve publicly stated, this undermines the credibility of the journalist, and that hurts everybody. In fact, I’m the one who wrote an open letter to the PR community advocating for the “Just Say No to No” campaign as a way to restore the credibility of our journalistic brothers.

As for the “on-background press conference with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis,” maybe you shouldn’t attend if they’re a waste of time.

In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.

I couldn’t help but notice that there’s no attribution for the survey, a journalistic no no. Which causes me to wonder if this is really an issue.

Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a “press vs. government” issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.

“Under surveillance?” I must have missed the memo stating that somehow the NSA is involved.

It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others – lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money – without these controls and without public oversight.

Right. I’m sure the Nixon administration made journalists feel right at home, offering them an iced tea as they roamed the White House. And again, what’s this “surveillance” issue that keeps surfacing? If it refers to a PR person accompanying the federal source, I’m deeply offended. Heck, I have a tough enough time keeping an eye on my grandkids much less have the expertise to hack the mobile phone logs of a journalist.

Here are some recent examples:

• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.

• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency’s actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.

• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.

Always a nice touch to bring in proof points.

The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.

We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.

Further examples on the issue are provided as well as other resources.


One thing for sure, the SPJ has made a conscious effort to leverage emotionally charged words. Hello “suppression.” Still, I like the idea of an ombudsman. It could work just like the role in publications. Oh, that’s right. Most publications axed their ombudsmen during cost reductions.

While we have never supported a federal agency, our work for the City of Fremont gives us a window into how a constructive tango between the media and government should work.

Sure, the contentious dynamic I referenced earlier periodically surfaces, but again that’s the nature of colliding agendas.

Dear SPJ,

PR is not the enemy.

Perhaps, you should issue a clear directive to your membership that it’s not only OK to interact with PR, but they might actually find it useful and not in conflict with the journalistic integrity of their work.



Writing Executive Quotes That Sound Like They Come From Actual Human Beings

The executive quote serves as a mainstay of PR-generated content from news releases to prepared statements.

With rare exception, they’re dreadful.

It’s as if each quote goes through the following process in which a conscious effort is made to squeeze out any semblance of humanity:

Executive Quote chart for humanity- storytelling

The upshot —

PR ends up crafting quotes like this one that then get flung to the world.

Typical PR executive quote

The quote does nothing to advance the narrative.

Worse, it’s more dull than an episode of CSPAN debating the merits of wildlife in national parks.

For a role model on doing quotes right, we surprisingly turn to the U.S. Soccer Federation. In fact, the organization goes one step further, essentially creating atomized storytelling that journalists can easily feather into their stories. Putting the heartbreak from yesterday’s loss to Belgium aside (I’m not bitter, but I’ll never eat another waffle), this is worth a drill down.

The Federation puts out what’s termed “The World Cup Quote Sheet” with select players and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann commenting on both recent outcomes and what’s ahead. Quotes such as the following — in-depth commentary allows journalists to pull slices into their stories — were distributed after the match with Germany:


On advancing from the Group of Death:

JK: “It’s huge. We wanted a tie out of this game, but maybe in the beginning we had a bit too much respect [for Germany]. Then, more and more, we got into the game. We should have created a bit more chances. That’s really something we have to improve on, but overall, tremendous energy, tremendous effort from the whole side. It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance.’ We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point.”

U.S. MNT goalkeeper TIM HOWARD
On getting out of the Group of Death:

TH: “Proud of our group; we have a lot left in us. Today was a tough game in tough conditions. Hats off to Germany, I think they have an opportunity to win the World Cup, that’s how good I think they are. We had a chance right there at the end, but we go again, we get to the Round of 16. It shows how far we’ve come. That we’re not happy just getting there, that we want to progress , and we still got a little bit left in us.”

On Jermaine Jones possibly breaking his nose:

CD: “I guess that’s the way it goes. We have a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of character. We keep going, we keep fighting. I’m sure, if he did break his nose, just like what happened to me, he’ll be ready for the next game.”

These comments do sound like they’re coming from actual human beings.

Equally important, the Federation’s PR team directs the commentary based on anticipating how journalists will round out their stories.

That’s why you have Clint Dempsey who broke his nose in the first match offering up a quote on Jermaine Jones who appeared to suffer a similar fate. Can anyone doubt that the line “I guess that’s the way it goes” really came from the mouth of Dempsey?

As a result, journalists do use these quotes because they add texture to their stories (search on “Klinsmann” and “It’s huge” shows that the phrase found its way into well over 100 stories).

I think there’s room for business communicators to borrow this concept.

At the very least, we should be writing executive quotes that pass the sound test; i.e., does it sound like something a person would actually say?


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For Those Who Tilt Toward Words, Here’s How to Improve Your Presentations

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a senior exec at a Fortune 500 company or manage the A1 Car Wash in Albuquerque, the ability to communicate impacts job performance. For many, this extends to the dreaded presentation.

You can find advice on this topic rivaling how to lose weight and make money selling timeshare condos.

Here’s the problem. These so-called gurus always the say same thing.

  • Use visuals, not bullets (oops)
  • Stop jingling coins in your pocket.
  • Don’t read your slides.
  • If you use enough visuals, you won’t read your slides because there isn’t enough to read.

For those of us wired by words, this is a little like suggesting a tortoise would move faster using a skateboard.

That’s why I found Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar, #PresentBetter, so refreshing. Finally, here’s a roadmap and tips that didn’t require an MFA from Pratt to implement.

I encourage you to take in Gavin’s webinar which is available for playback on SlideShare. In the meantime, here are my CliffsNotes from the session.

Harmonize Words, Pictures and Structure

Gavin McMahon’s webinar on Slideshare

Words on slides aren’t the devil. You just need to use them the right way. Rather than skewer PowerPoint, use the platform to fill in the gaps on the area you don’t do particularly well. For example, if you’re an introverted soul, you might depend on the slide rather than oral communications to express a touch of levity in your storytelling.

I used the slide below in an internal presentation last year that absolutely bombed!

Man-T internal presentation

It’s OK.

Take a chance or two understanding that not everything will work.

Start with the Question, Why Are You Presenting?

There are really only two reasons that people present, either to frame the way people see the world or to move people to action. In either case, recognize that the audience is asking, “What’s in it for me?” The alignment between the answers to the two questions becomes the foundation for your presentation.

Humans Aren’t Rational But They are Great Rationalizers

Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar on how to deliver a great presentation

If you gravitate toward logic – I certainly count myself in this category – it can take a conscious effort to insert emotion into a presentation. Yet, it’s a must. As Gavin puts it, “Reason leads to judgment; emotion leads to action.” Again for introverts, emotive language on the actual slide might be a better approach than trying to channel a Meryl Streep performance.

Looks Count

I won’t numb you with studies from the wonderful world of neurology. In short, the science says If something looks good, we think it’s more truthful.

Create Visuals From Words

I’ve touched on this area before. Even though the vast majority of those in PR come to the profession through words, the right design touch can transform words into visuals (Just don’t expect “a word is worth a thousand pictures” to come to pass).

Look at how Gavin visually depicts what’s behind every presentation.

Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar on how to deliver a great presentation

We’re talking 17 words and two interlocking circles.

Presentation Training 101 squeezes the discomfort out of people by putting them in uncomfortable situations again and again under the premise that they eventually will get comfortable.

Personally, I prefer the Gavin approach.

Then again, I’m an introvert.

Side note: For more on visual storytelling, you might check out “Visual Lessons from BusinessWeek.”


Do Publications Walk the Social Media Talk? Do They Truly Serve the Reader?

Every publication has embraced social media.

For proof, look no further than the “cutting-edge” journalism of Tactical Knives which connects with readers through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest (knives on Pinterest is a story for another time).

Tactical Knives Magazine Cover

But here’s the question I posed to our crack research team: Do publications operate their social channels in the spirit of putting the reader, their target audience, at the center of the universe?

Studies show that the hard sell in today’s digital world is like knocking on a door with a feather. Instead, social media attention gravitates toward the useful, revealing or amusing. And if you can deliver on all three qualities, the trifecta generates an ongoing stacatto of clicks.

To answer the question, we focused our effort on a mix of publications covering both general business and the tech sector:

  • Fortune
  • Bloomberg Businessweek
  • Quartz
  • Mashable
  • PandoDaily
  • The New York Times Bits

Next, we gathered the tweets for each publication over a 12-hour period ( 6 am to 6 pm PT) on February 12, drilling into the data with two specific questions.

First, do the publications’ tweets include links?

They got the memo that links trigger shares. Out of 176 collective tweets from our test group, 176 included tweets.

List of: Tweet provocative stories, includes links, no more sochi tweets

But what are they linking too? Does the reader’s interests rate the top priority?

To dig into this area, we simply identified the number of tweets linking to stories in other publications. No single publications has a monopoly on the best journalism  so it stands to reason that if a publication was striving to serve the reader, it would periodically identify useful/revealing/amusing stories from other sources.

The data speaks for itself:

Bar chart of tweets with links & links to other publications

The New Yorks Times tech blog seems to be the only media property that believes its readers will benefit from journalism found elsewhere.

Of course, Data Science 101 states you can’t extrapolate from one day. With this in mind, we combed through two weeks of NY Times Bits data covering the standard work weeks of Feb. 17 – Feb 21 and Feb. 24 – 28.

Pie Chart of total number of  The New York Times Bits Tweets

It seems fair to say that The New York Times Bits and its social media crew make a conscious effort to serve the reader (WIRED and MIT Tech Review appear to be their go-to sources).

Lest you think The New York Times as a company has got the sharing religion, a review of the publication’s core account reveals 100 percent of the links from this account point to NYT stories.

The New York Times Twitter account

The bottom line–

Publications use Twitter as a one-way distribution channel to shove out their content to the outside world and manufacture incremental clicks.

Even the poster child for switched-on, Mashable, deploys Twitter as nothing more than a distribution channel. Raking through a weeks worth of Mashable tweets supported our initial cut that less than 10 percent of all links point readers to non-Mashable content.

Media properties talk a good game about new business models that cultivate community.

If Twitter is an indicator, they’ve got a ways to go.




The Next Time You’re Crafting Executive Quotes, Consider This

Regardless of your politics, no president has brought out the humanity of the Oval Office like President Obama.

How much comes from President Obama himself as opposed to his advisers?

The question misses the point.

He gets it or he wouldn’t sign off.

As exhibit A, take a look at the statement from President Obama on the passing of Harold Ramis.

Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Ramis, one of America’s greatest satirists, and like so many other comedic geniuses, a proud product of Chicago’s Second City.  When we watched his movies – from “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” to “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day” – we didn’t just laugh until it hurt.  We questioned authority.  We identified with the outsider.  We rooted for the underdog.  And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Harold’s wife, Erica, his children and grandchildren, and all those who loved him, who quote his work with abandon, and who hope that he received total consciousness.

Speaking of Animal House, I periodically channel Otto in Animal House — “Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives.”

Back to President Obama’s narrative and why it works —

First, he sounds like a real human being, not a bunch of handlers haggling over an adjective.

The conversational tone continues with “a proud product of Chicago’s Second City.” Hey, even a president can take pride in his “hometown.”

The zinger comes in the third sentence when he shares that Ramis’ movies inspired them to “question authority.” (No wonder he has issues with Republicans.)

And he even channels Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper in “Caddyshack” in the close.

All in all, there’s a storytelling quality to the statement.

Unfortunately, the PR function continues to generate executive quotes with the stiffness of plywood. It’s such a waste in today’s media environment in which journalists are moving so quickly, they increasingly need a quick way to plug in fresh perspectives in quote form.

Done right, an executive quote should reveal something that doesn’t come across from the facts. Sharing an anecdote that takes the reader behind the curtain or offering a crisp viewpoint can be effective.

President Obama’s statement reflects these storytelling techniques and explains why publications ranging from USA Today to The Washington Post “borrowed” his words.

Storytelling techniques in quotes

storytelling techniques in executive quotes

Yes, I recognize that the man behind movies like  “Caddyshack” – “Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now …” – will garner more attention than a new tool for software programming.

Still, regardless of the space, a quote that actually says something extends its reach.


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