Social Security comms plan bristles employees

WASHINGTON: Some Social Security employees are rankled by a PR plan that asks them to position the current benefits system as a program that must be reformed.

WASHINGTON: Some Social Security employees are rankled by a PR plan that asks them to position the current benefits system as a program that must be reformed.

An internal communications memo dated February 2004 - now circulating in the press - lists several talking points on the "long-term challenges facing Social Security."

The messages include statements such as: "longer, healthier lives mean change is needed in long-term Social Security financing," and "modernization must include individually controlled, voluntary personal retirement accounts."

Mark Lassiter, the Social Security Administration's press officer, said that the plan that's been circulated was never reviewed or approved by the agency. Rather it was posted on the website of one regional office.

The agency's overall PR plan "hasn't changed in several years," and involves only public affairs officers, he said.

Dana Duggins, VP of the American Federation of Government Employees' Social Security Council, said that the directive went to regional and PR directors.

She described the tactic of including employees in the PR plans of a government agency as "very unusual."

"Never have Social Security employees ever engaged in any political activity," she said. "We're looked at as a source for the White House now. It clearly is unethical."

Bush counselor Dan Bartlett told NBC's Meet the Press, "There's no expectation that career employees would be asked to advocate on behalf of any specific prescription for Social Security."

Social Security commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart has been stressing a similar message in communications with the media, Lassiter said.

Duggins noted that the Social Security Council, which represents employees at the agency, is working with labor group AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Campaign for America's Future in a counter-campaign.

But PR ethics officers disagree that the communications plan was unreasonable.

"When we elect governments, we also elect their policies," said James Lukaszawski, president of the Lukaszawski Group, and former press secretary in the Minnesota governor's office. "When you work in government, you are going to be transmitting the government's messages. That's part of your job."

He called the press coverage surrounding the issue "overblown."

Emmanuel Tchividjian, SVP at Ruder Finn, and a member of the PRSA's board of ethics and professional standards, noted that the issue comes down to job expectations.

"For an employer to use its influence on employees to serve the employer's interest is very questionable," he said. "[But] in this case, these employees are paid to answer phones."

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