A key to public affairs success is putting a human face on government
operations, journalists and federal officials said Wednesday.
Speaking at a seminar in Bethesda, Md., sponsored by the Federal
Communicators Network, journalists urged federal public affairs
officers to let more employees in their agencies speak to the media.
Juan Williams, a reporter with the Washington Post, said NASA's
handling of the Mars Polar Lander failure offers a good example of how an
agency dealt with a public relations problem effectively. NASA let
reporters talk to the lander's project managers, who shared their
frustration and exhaustion as the mission veered toward failure.
"People were taken with the human faces of the people working on
the project," Williams said. "There was more of an empathy for
NASA rather than a condemnation."
Joan Wainwright, deputy director for communications at the Social
Security Administration, said SSA views all of its employees as
spokespeople. Employees in local and regional offices across the country
are urged to get the word out about Social Security programs, Wainwright
"We need to personalize our programs as much as possible,"
The Wednesday seminar, "Government and Media: Perception and
Reality," was aimed at helping federal agencies figure out how to
communicate effectively about their operations.
James Kitfield, a correspondent with National Journal and a
contributing editor to Government Executive, said the Pentagon
failed during the Kosovo conflict to put a human face on the military
operation. He said no American heroes emerged out of the conflict because
NATO and the Defense Department clamped down too hard on the release of
"It's very difficult to write a story about faceless pilots,"
In an effort to get the word out about federal employees'
accomplishments, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR)
unveiled a Web site at the seminar that tells stories about hard-working
civil servants. Stories on Rego.gov
include an interview with Col. Eileen Collins, the first female space
shuttle commander, and a look at how the Federal Emergency Management
Agency helped Beth Bartlett of Del City, Okla., survive a tornado.
"It's the People magazine of the government," said NPR
spokeswoman Kelly Paisley.
A public affairs officer with the Federal Aviation Administration told
journalists that her hands are tied because public affairs is highly
politicized. Political appointees will only allow a handful of high-level
officials to talk to the press, she said.
Journalists also complained that public affairs offices in government
have become less responsive to their requests during the Clinton
administration. They attributed the change to politicization.
"The spokesman's job has become too politicized," said
veteran journalist Bernard Kalb, who was the State Department's spokesman
for two years in the Reagan administration.
But George Haddow, acting director of the Office of Public Affairs at
the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said his agency gives the media
access to many of its employees and is not politicized.