Working for one message

Government departments strive to align their communications.

Government departments strive to align their communications.

There's a moment in Office Space, the 1999 spoof of American office life, that elicits a knowing cringe from anyone who's ever occupied a cubicle. It's a morning meeting, the boss is droning on, and above him hangs a banner: "Is this good for the company?"

"So you should ask yourself, with every decision that you make," he tells the workers, pointing to the banner, "Is this good for the company?"

It's a scene that surely passes through the minds of many public affairs staffers with the US Department of Transportation (DoT) as they come to work each morning. There, in the front lobby of the communications director's office, hangs a large banner reading, "The US Department of Transportation - Moving America's Economy."

It's one way to keep your people on message.

And keeping people on message isn't easy when you work at the DoT, or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), or any government agency for that matter. For an example of both how hard and how important it is, one need look no further than the anthrax scare of 2001. After small amounts of the powder began showing up in Capitol Hill office buildings, national media offices, and Washington postal facilities, an already shaken America looked to the federal government for instruction and reassurance. Thanks to some severely mixed messages, it was able to offer neither.

After the first outbreak, senior HHS people assured the country it was a natural occurrence. When it became clear that was wrong, information about who should get tested and what the impact of the disease might be seemed to change every hour, and HHS messages often contradicted each other.

Why is it so hard for a government agency to keep its story straight? It depends on whom you ask.

The major cause most agree on, however, is structure. Some agencies are simple: one director of communications with a handful of PR people below him or her, all in the same office. But that's the exception. Most start at the top with a director of communications who reports directly to the agency's secretary. That director has his own staff of a half-dozen people or so. Then there are the sub-agencies, which usually have their own directors of communications and their own PR staffs. Some of these can be massive; some can be one or two people. Sometimes they're in the same building; sometimes they have headquarters on opposite sides of the country. And, occasionally, they have conflicting public affairs priorities.

Maintaining message consistency

There's no single way to deal with these problems, but bringing people together as often as possible is a popular one.

At the Department of Commerce (DoC), there are two weekly communications meetings. On Fridays, director of communications Ron Bonjean meets with all 13 heads of public affairs from all 13 DoC agencies. "That is where we discuss what's going to happen in the week ahead," he says. They look at what reports or economic numbers will be released in the next seven days and plan for how they will be communicated. They also anticipate what economic events might occupy the media's attention and how the DoC can stay ahead of them.

On Wednesdays, his deputy director, Lisa Camooso Miller, meets with assorted members of those teams to plan strategy and share intelligence. For example, "We talk about where [public affairs staffers] will be going next week because you often find that someone else just got back from that state and already has the benefit of working with the [reporters] in that area."

Weekly PR meetings are a new thing at the DoT, but director of communications Robert Johnson believes they've made a tremendous difference - even more so than the banner.

"We created a public affairs leadership group that meets every morning to review the news of the day, talk about current events and future news cycles, and to make assignments," says Johnson. "The group consists of everyone on the secretary's public affairs team, plus the director of each agency's public affairs team."

Johnson, who has been in his job just a year, says that aside from structure, one of the biggest obstacles to message consistency that he's experienced has been the disconnect between those public affairs people who come and go with the administration (political appointees) and those who stay regardless of who's in office.

"You must have everyone engaged in order to get on message," he says. "But what I found very quickly was that these career people cared; they just had been conditioned for so long not to say anything, not to weigh in, not to have an opinion, that it was really hard for them to switch gears over night, and that's critical."

Johnson's method for overcoming that and other obstacles was to organize the public affairs staff into a newsroom environment, with schedules and messaging plans posted on the wall where everyone can see them. He believes the communal environment helps keep everyone on the same page by keeping everyone's head in the game.

Not everyone sees a disconnect between career people and appointees, however. Melissa Skolfield, former head of public affairs for HHS under former President Clinton and now communications counsel for minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), says, "We had very little trouble with leaks or people going off message" - quite an accomplishment when you consider that HHS has 11 separate agencies, and Skolfield had 37 people reporting to her. But she credits the tone set by then-secretary Donna Shalala for preventing such problems. "She came in with a lot more experience than most other secretaries, so from the very first day she made it clear that political appointees and career people were all on the same team," she explains.

Bonjean says the Commerce Department is similarly blessed with a smooth working relationship between career people and appointees. "We haven't really had a problem with that, which is surprising and much appreciated," he offers.

Like Skolfield, Bonjean credits his department's secretary, Don Evans, a longtime personal friend of President Bush, with his agency's sense of cohesion. Both agree that, like any good chief executive, the head of a federal agency can make all the difference by setting a tone of cooperation and purpose - focused on serving the people and not a political party. When the message is about the people, not the President, they say, even career employees with opposing viewpoints will stick to the message out of a sense of duty.

Dealing with information leaks

Leaks are a problem unto themselves. It's difficult enough to keep a huge federal department on message, even when everyone intends to cooperate. But what about when you have someone ideologically opposed to your message? Can you really prevent public affairs staff from giving reporters the kind of juicy fodder they live for?

Not really, says Larry Haas, former director of communications for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Clinton and now director of public affairs at MS&L.

"Unless it's relatively easy to find, I don't think the communications directors at the federal level typically take much time trying to figure out where a leak comes from," he says. "Sometimes, if it's a really technical issue that only a few people have knowledge of, maybe you can do it. But with a general leak, there are just too many people who could [be guilty]."

Haas, who says the relatively small OMB didn't have much trouble with leaks, says the only other step to take is to appeal to your staff's sense of professionalism. You can remind them of the rules - all conversations with reporters must be cleared - but you can't monitor every phone call.

One solution floated by HHS secretary Tommy Thompson in 2002 was to do away with his department's various public affairs offices. In the wake of the anthrax debacle, he proposed that all HHS communications be centralized directly under his office to ensure consistency. But Congress didn't go for it, and the public affairs community spoke out against it. Reasons cited included the risk of losing dissenting voices on important issues and possibly slowing down the release of vital information.

"It was a terrible idea," says Skolfield. "I think it's incredibly important for all HHS agencies to have their own voice and deal with their own constituencies. I really think it would have diluted the voice and autonomy of crucial agencies."

Obviously Congress agreed because not only did it deny the $28 million Thompson requested to make the consolidation happen, it rebuked him for suggesting it.

"[I]nformation necessary to make timely decisions by the Congress and requests for information by the public may be delayed by this consolidation," read Congress's reply.

What it didn't mention was the number of banners that can be purchased for $28 million. Of course that is likely because message consistency requires something more than banners. Hopefully, agencies will figure out what that something is before the next crisis.

Streamlining HHS

Two years ago, Congress rejected HHS secretary Tommy Thompson's $28 million proposal to consolidate all HHS public affairs departments under his office. But that hasn't stopped his team from streamlining operations.

"We've created a structure where, even though [the consolidation] didn't happen formally, it has happened informally," says Kevin Keane, assistant secretary of public affairs.

Denied their chosen method, top HHS public affairs officials instead instituted reforms that increased communication and coordination between the 11 sub-agencies. Now, all press releases and interview requests must go through the secretary's public affairs office, and all top public affairs officials are included in a daily phone call to discuss the day's PR priorities and likely news events.

But what of the concerns that such streamlining and rigid approval methods would slow communication or stifle independent voices? Keane says nothing could be further from reality.

As for speedy response, "We get press releases turned around within a day, usually," Keane assures. "If they need to do an interview, we get them a message back within minutes."

And he says concerns that the secretary would exert oppressive influence over independent voices have proven wrong, as well. "You can't fill one hand with the number of times that we've said no to an interview request."

"And frankly," he adds, speaking of public affairs staff in the smaller departments, "I think a lot of them like the help."

It almost makes one wonder what they needed the $28 million for in the first place.

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