Government Public Affairs Offices: More Hindrance Than Help?

From The National Press Club:  A National Press Club panel will convene on Aug. 12 to debate federal public-affairs practices that some say can cut the public off from its affairs.

Although executive branch communications offices can be useful, at times indispensable, in helping the press cover the government, reporters need to always be free to seek information in other ways. Yet doing so has become difficult to a degree that some say jeopardizes open government.

Public affairs offices increasingly require that reporters conduct all interviews through the press office. More ominously, U.S. departments and agencies often mandate that their employees only talk to reporters through official channels and with communications staff present–or face the risk of disciplinary action. In that same vein, former U.S. officials say that federal personnel seeking to obtain or renew security clearances are sometimes asked if they have had unauthorized contact with a reporter …

Such restrictions have increasingly become the rule in federal agencies, but they were not in place so widely a few decades ago. Most reporters do not protest the practices, because they have never known another way.

On the other side of the issue, public affairs professionals believe these controls are necessary to ensure that the press gets accurate information and the department or agency’s message is unified and coherent.

To explore the issue, the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee has assembled a panel of experts with differing views on the subject.