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  Daily Briefing  

December 9, 1999

Reporters to agencies: Tell us your stories

By Brian Friel

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 said.

"We need to personalize our programs as much as possible," she said.

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 information.

"It's very difficult to write a story about faceless pilots," Kitfield said.

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 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.

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