ANALYSIS: Press takes DHS to task over efficiency of its press office

The Department of Homeland Security's public affairs office is undergoing intense scrutiny for the way it handles journalists' inquiries.

The Department of Homeland Security's public affairs office is undergoing intense scrutiny for the way it handles journalists' inquiries.

It was a year ago this month that 22 federal entities merged to form the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), America's first new cabinet-level agency in 13 years. The department hasn't been shy about using the opportunity to tout its early accomplishments, nor is the media hesitant to provide its own assessment of this unique experiment in government, bureaucracy, and law enforcement. But taking place behind the scenes is a less-talked-about experiment in PR. The DHS office of public affairs was formed by merging government communicators from nearly two dozen agencies with wildly varying specialties and from sometimes conflicting cultures - much like the rest of the department. It's a process apt to yield inefficiency and confusion in any organization, but nowhere are the challenges more acute than in the formation of a press office. After all, how does one forge a PR machine with a cohesive message from 22 different parts? Conversations with journalists, DHS public affairs officers, and veteran government communicators offer a glimpse into the experiment. One year in, DHS public affairs is struggling with the same demons that haunt nearly any busy PR operation. In private conversations, reporters complain about unreturned calls and spokespeople who play favorites. Field officers complain about having their hands tied by bureaucracy and a lack of direction from their superiors. Meanwhile, senior DHS officials acknowledge the problems but insist they are temporary, the unavoidable side effects of a high-profile agency getting on its feet with the whole world watching (and calling, it sometimes seems). Complaints and concerns To be sure, stifling bureaucracy and a lack of efficiency are hardly unusual complaints to hear about government public affairs offices - much less an outstandingly busy one still in its infancy. "Often during an incident, we'll get hundreds of calls in a period of several hours, making it very difficult to respond to each and every call," says press secretary Brian Roehrkasse. But the ability to disperse information quickly and effectively is central to the role of DHS in a way it just isn't to, say, the Department of Commerce. Should there be a major terrorist attack on US soil, DHS public affairs is the first place reporters from all over the world will turn for their information; 100 calls an hour will seem like a picnic that day. Certainly, it's not unreasonable to expect a press office up to the task. Several senior reporters, however, say DHS has a long way to go. Those cited here - all from major publications - agreed to discuss the matter only if their names not be used, citing fears of losing the trust and access that they have earned over the past year. Says one reporter who works the aviation beat: "I've had problems in terms of asking questions and not getting any answers back, or asking questions and them taking a week to reply. There were even times when a story had to be delayed because I didn't have the info that I needed from them." Another echoes the concerns of many by saying it is rarely clear whom she should be getting her answers from. "There's this endless crop of public affairs people at DHS, [but] I've found there seems to be more obfuscation than normal. It's likely there will be improvement once the pressure's off - but I don't think the pressure will be off any time soon." Several DHS public affairs officers say they have heard the complaints and believe the problem is a lack of autonomy afforded them by their superiors. One senior member of the public affairs field team - also requesting anonymity, citing job concerns - says the obfuscation and inefficiency were inadvertently built into the system. "On our private conference calls twice a week, we're told to defer calls to DHS [headquarters in Washington] about most important issues" says the officer. "We're gagged from speaking to the media on critical topics, but then nobody in Washington is calling these reporters back. "We're frustrated," the officer continues. "We hear from media all over the place, 'Why can't you just talk to us?' But we aren't allowed to go on the record, and people in Washington just aren't returning all the calls." Another regional officer echoes those concerns. "I feel that a good percentage of us are very responsive to reporters' inquiries and get them answers quickly. But in the meantime, for whatever reason, because of a lack of experience maybe, a lot of other [DHS] spokesmen don't get back to people - they don't even get back to you internally. I think they try to do a good job. It's just manpower - there are not enough people to go around." Answering the complaints, Dennis Murphy, director of public affairs for border and transportation security, concedes that there have been issues with responsiveness, but not for the reasons stated above. "It's the age-old struggle between the operational side of the house and the press side of the house," he says. Much like the Pentagon or the CIA, Murphy explains, DHS must weigh every public response with its impact on national security, and that conflict naturally slows down the process of releasing information. "We want to get the word out quickly, to be responsive, but operations folks want to make sure that we're not saying too much. It's a constant tug and pull." (It's worth noting that not a single call placed to a DHS public affairs official for this article went unreturned. Most were returned within 24 hours.) But some reporters don't buy it, saying the unreturned calls are actually a part of DHS strategy. One Washington journalist says Robert Johnson, the former TSA director of public affairs, "either wasn't up to the job or felt there were a lot of people who didn't treat the agency fairly, so he actually blacklisted us and wouldn't call us back or include us in press events. It was just insane." Johnson, who is now the director of public affairs at the Department of Transportation, says "We managed reporters based on how they wanted to be managed. Those who came at us guns a' blazing, story done before talking to us, they were managed in such a way as to protect our position as much as possible. Those who were willing to give us a fair hearing were given fair treatment." Making progress Murphy is eager to point out that the office is still operating under its temporary structure, with about a dozen regional coordinators acting as de facto organizers of various public affairs officers around the country. A permanent structure will eventually be put in place, creating semi-independent public affairs offices in each region, which will presumably increase flexibility and response times down to the local level. But when that will happen is still unclear. The regional boundaries are still being debated among the higher ups, and the public affairs office can't move until the regions are announced. Progress was evident after the recent eruption of violence in Haiti. A temporary joint information center was quickly erected in Miami, and all Haiti-related inquiries were directed there, not Washington. It's a scenario that Murphy says will serve as a model for handling crises in the future. All new ventures take time to get up to speed, and the patchwork nature of the DHS only compounds the task's complexity. No one interviewed for this article suggested that anyone in the press office took their job less than seriously, and no one can deny it's one of the most grave assignments in communications. But it's for that reason that reporters seem to be holding them to a higher standard.

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