ANALYSIS <b>Organizational Case Study</b>: NSA reaches out to media to gain friendlier image

After so many years with its doors tightly shut to the American public and media, the National Security Agency developed a strategic messaging plan to give both a glimpse inside. Ask a National Security Agency (NSA) public-affairs officer about his approach to the media, and the conversation likely will come around to Will Smith - which is not as odd as it may seem. The rapper-turned-actor has had a major impact on why, how, and what the NSA talks about - when it decides to talk.

After so many years with its doors tightly shut to the American public and media, the National Security Agency developed a strategic messaging plan to give both a glimpse inside. Ask a National Security Agency (NSA) public-affairs officer about his approach to the media, and the conversation likely will come around to Will Smith - which is not as odd as it may seem. The rapper-turned-actor has had a major impact on why, how, and what the NSA talks about - when it decides to talk.

Five years ago, incoming NSA director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, on the night he was asked to take the job, just happened to attend a screening of Enemy of the State. In the 1998 movie, Smith plays a lawyer who accidentally ends up on the wrong side of the NSA. He tries to run, but soon discovers there is no hiding from the Orwellian group and their global arsenal of eavesdropping devices. The film portends the end of privacy at the mercy of NSA agents the way The Day After predicted the end of the world courtesy of Moscow. Judith Emmel, director of public affairs and corporate communications, says Hayden slid down in his seat during the screening and thought to himself, "I've got a bit of an image problem with this agency." But he walked away with a sense of purpose. Hayden wanted Americans to really get to know the NSA. Misrepresentations like those in the movie resulted from too much secrecy on the agency's part, he felt. Sure, keeping secrets was central to the agency's work, but surely there was some way to help the public understand just what they do - and don't do - without compromising their mission. It also has been suggested that Hayden realized he was facing a post-Cold War Congress that might not see the need for still lavishly funding an agency that was designed largely for spying on the Soviets. Raising one's profile in order to woo the bean counters is a time-honored tradition in Washington. Making a change Unfortunately, at the time, NSA's public-affairs office barely deserved the title, consisting of just two people. As the agency responsible for cracking foreign codes and devising those used by the US, the NSA didn't have much need for media attention. And the press had learned not to try. So a two-person office was more than enough - how many people does it take to answer a phone that never rings? But things were about to change. "The two things Americans distrust are power and secrecy, and we're a very powerful and very secretive agency," says Emmel. "[But] we need to be able to do our business in a way that the American public understands that we do it within the law, and that they're comfortable with us. So we need to have that presence." Once Hayden came aboard officially, Emmel was charged with developing a strategic messaging and media plan, deciding what the agency could talk about without betraying classified information. "What we can't talk about are the true secrets. We can't talk about sources and methods; we can't talk about the budget and the things we do that are truly classified," says Emmel. "But we can talk about ... that we're a foreign-signals intelligence agency, that we're an information assurance agency, that we're America's code makers and code breakers, that we've been around for over 50 years now." Of course, deciding what could be talked about was only half the battle. They also had to find someone to talk to. And that required fixing some broken relationships among the Washington media. "When you tell people to go away for so many years, they aren't that keen to talk to you when you're ready to talk," Emmel says with a laugh. David Ensor, CNN's national security correspondent, agrees. "NSA once stood for "No Such Agency," he remembers. "The object of the press office at the NSA was to take your name and number, find out what you knew, then tell you they had no comment about it. They've come a long way since then." Media outreach The public affairs staff was eventually increased to its current level of 10, and the National Cryptologic Museum, right next door to the NSA on Fort Meade in Maryland (which ironically also houses the public-affairs school through which all military communicators learn the art of transparency), was greatly expanded and promoted. The museum is the NSA's public face, explaining through obsolete machines and declassified success stories how the NSA has kept Americans safe for the past 50 years. Emmel's office began actively promoting the museum as a tourist destination. (It also apparently uses it as a handy meeting place for reporters it would rather not allow inside the actual NSA building.) The office then began reaching out to the media, cautiously. "We rarely pitch actively," Emmel says, but "when we do major senior personnel hirings or changes, we have press releases on those," or "if there's something we think is a major initiative or thrust, something we think the public should know about and it's not a classified issue, we certainly do try and get that information out there." Media-wise, tech magazines began to follow the NSA as home to some of the most advanced technologies around; government magazines followed personnel comings and goings; and CNN, 60 Minutes, and other politically oriented outlets began covering the NSA as they would any other federal agency. Even this magazine did a story in 2001 about NSA's impressive openness, but soon the process was in danger of being reversed. September 11, 2001, temporarily sent the NSA back into the shadows and threatened to keep it there. But rather than retreat, Emmel's staff used the new working relationships it had formed with the media to manage the news, not squelch it. "Everyone in the newspaper was covering 9/11, [but] a lot of these folks had no clue about NSA, no clue about what might be sensitive or not," she says. "And we did work very hard with reporters afterward, and we called to make sure they did not reveal too much about what we're doing, about intelligence, about how we intercepted information." The museum was forced to close for several months, as well, largely because of a reallocation of suddenly strapped security resources. Emmel says she found an impressive willingness among reporters to work with her, due as much to a surge in patriotism and respect for government as to the years of cultivation. Still, without that time put in, it's doubtful post-9/11 media relations would have been without incident, which they were. "You really have to credit Gen. Hayden with having a broader view and an understanding that this agency in the post-Cold War world needs to have an image," says Ensor. "It needs it in order to recruit good people and in order to convince the Congress to keep the budget at the level it needs. "It's still a pretty limited set of areas that they're willing to talk about in any depth," he continues, "but those of us who cover intelligence matters have a better understanding of what they do and do not do because they now talk to and exchange information with us." PR contacts Director of public affairs and corporate communications Judith Emmel Deputy director of corporate communications Kenneth Heath Deputy director of public affairs Martha Mercer

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