MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media puts new focus on security

Post-9/11, media outlets again trump up their bureaus in DC to handle homeland security issues, even as federal agencies stay mum about the topic.

Post-9/11, media outlets again trump up their bureaus in DC to handle homeland security issues, even as federal agencies stay mum about the topic.

National security before 9/11 was one of those media topics covered primarily as a public policy issue debated by politicians but not necessarily the public. But as cliched as it now sounds, 9/11 changed everything, including the media's focus on the topic. National security coverage in the past few years has in many ways re-energized the Washington press corps. Chris Kennedy, senior media relations associate for The Heritage Foundation, notes that almost every major news organization and many of the mid-major ones now staff the national security beat, reversing a trend that had seen many outlets cut back their Washington bureaus. "There's no doubt in my mind that many major news outlets are definitely dedicating more staff resources to national security," he says. That's not to say that national security has come out of nowhere to become the most prominent issue. "It's always been there, and it's always been covered on some level," says B. Jay Cooper, SVP with APCO Worldwide. "But now the intensity is greater. That doesn't mean there's going to be three stories on the front page, but the coverage is going to be there." Federal agencies keeping quiet Francie Israeli, VP with Washington-based John Adams Associates, notes that while few of the national security reporters are new to the beat, "A lot of these reporters have covered Pentagon and defense issues before, and have made the overall national security story part of their beats." National security is no doubt a challenging beat, in part because so much of it occurs in a clandestine world of intelligence, defense, and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Kennedy says that created a bit of an analysis and information void that is being filled in part by his organization and other DC-based non-governmental organizations. "Federal agencies in general are not as responsive to the media," he says. "The media can have difficulty getting quotes and content for articles out of many national security-related agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and even the State Department." Currently, the bulk of the national security coverage tends to be about policy and politics, with little input from the major defense and security companies contracted to execute a lot of new technology and programs. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of defense or national security-related companies stepping up because they're contracted to the government," Cooper says. Ambassador Gilbert Robinson, former deputy director of the United States Information Agency and now a consultant whose clients include Henry Kissinger's firm, Kissinger McLarty Associates, suggests it's a myth that these major defense companies are not media savvy. "They keep a low profile a lot of times because they don't feel they can deal with reporters knowledgeable and sophisticated enough to understand what they're doing," he says. Opportunities for PR Robinson conceded national security journalism is slowly changing for the better, but adds that much of it still lacks depth and nuance. "A lot of reporters don't know a lot about the national security process," he says. "A guy like Richard Clarke surfaces and it's instant news, but they're not covering it the way they should. They don't understand that Condi Rice probably has 10 guys under her like Clarke." Cooper adds that while media relations does help fuel the public policy debate, there are still untapped PR opportunities to communicate to the public the day-to-day implications of national security. "I'm talking about companies such as financial institutions that have nothing to do with national security educating people on whether or not they can use their ATM card in the event of an attack," he says. "Or what happens to their bank, so that their customers know what's going to happen and what they can do. I haven't seen a lot of that." Currently, a great deal of national security coverage is being handled by political beat journalists simply because they're the ones following the candidates on a 24-hour basis and are the first to report any comments made on the issue. That could change following the elections, but there always will be a component to the issue. Pitching... national security
  • Though national security will largely remain a DC-based public policy story, there are opportunities to localize the issue by pitching local reporters on how prepared area business and civic leaders are for the possibility of another attack
  • If you have a national-security- related client, think long-term. No matter who wins in November, it will remain a high-profile topic for a long time
  • Journalists are always on the lookout for sources given government's reluctance to discuss many aspects of national security. As such, position your client as a non-governmental expert on the issue

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