Frequent US Justice Department investigations into leaks are changing the way government communicators interact with reporters, according to Washington-based public affairs pros.
Last week, Associated Press president and CEO Gary Pruitt said that inquiries into leaks have thrown a scare into “long-trusted [government] sources,” even on stories that have nothing to do with national security.
The scrutiny has created a rift between sources and journalists as both sides become less trusting of one another. The falling-out will affect the work of government communicators at least in the short term, says Frank Maisano, founding partner of Bracewell & Guiliani's Policy Resolution Group strategic communications and government affairs practice.
“The flow of information [between government and media] is a two-way street. Something like this undermines the credibility and respect sources have for reporters but also the respect and credibility reporters have for their government sources,” says Maisano, who was previously a press secretary on Capitol Hill. “This respect has had cold water thrown on it.”
While he says this may dampen the flow of information, he suspects both official and unofficial communicators will find ways to share sensitive information.
“There is just too much of a need and desire to get information out,” stresses Maisano. “People are just going to have to operate with a little more care, and a lot of people already are doing that anyway.”
Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Justice Department has reportedly launched at least six leak-related investigations. It reportedly obtained AP phone records, including from the personal and office lines of several national security reporters and editors covering a foiled terrorist airline bombing plot in Yemen.
One senior public affairs leader, who spoke to PRWeek on the condition of anonymity, says government communicators are likely feeling the squeeze within their own departments. High-ranking officials may be more reluctant to take part in even noncontroversial media relations efforts, the executive explains.
“The internal communicator-client relationship could be strained. High-ranking officials are going to think, ‘Why draw attention to myself? Why talk to reporters if you really don't need to? Why go through the problem of doing that when you might draw the ire of the administration?'” says the source. “That is a major change in thinking in this town where everyone used to talk to anyone.”
That erosion in trust between reporters and federal agencies means government communications executives face difficulty garnering news coverage for run-of-the-mill or positive news stories.
“I think they will have a harder time working with reporters who normally would have been pretty eager and receptive, unless they know the reporter really well,” the source says.
Given that the flow of information to the press runs through official and unofficial channels, public affairs pros are divided on whether the crackdown will give government communicators more control of their messages.
Michael Robinson, EVP at Levick and a former spokesperson for the SEC and Justice Department, believes government sources will think twice about leaking information to the media regardless of the content. The reason: the Obama administration seems to be taking a hard line against all whistleblowers regardless of what information has been leaked.
“There is a big difference between information the government doesn't like and information that is harmful to national security, yet the line of that distinction seems to be getting blurred,” he says. “Someone may have some information that has nothing to do with being egregious to national security – the ‘Department of XYZ' spent $2 million on paper clips by mistake – but the person who leaked that story may still be subjected to enhanced surveillance.”
Robinson adds that critical reporters or government employees who have information that positions the administration in a negative light are probably getting the cold shoulder from sources. “And I don't think there is warm front coming anytime soon,” he adds.
Lane Bailey, principal and founder of Advocom Group and the former director of public affairs at GolinHarris, counters that leaks are here to stay, and government communicators will have to operate under the assumption that surveillance is an ongoing practice.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in Washington have security clearances, and the government has gotten lazy about how it protects its secrets, who talks about them, and who knows about them,” he says. “The ecosystem of information is just so large now.”
He adds that in some circles, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is “held up as hero rather than villain. When you capture headlines such as Snowden has over the last few weeks, you become a figure of note and a hero for many.”
“If somebody has a capacity to leak massive amounts of intelligence, there will be some people who think that is good thing,” he says. “I don't think that sentiment will disappear.”
But Bailey believes blame lies on both sides of the media-government divide. He says journalists have become lazy about taking leaks from sources without asking hard questions about the information. Meanwhile, government communicators “only have a fraction of the information of the whole picture that they used to have because government has proliferated,” he says.
But what's clear is that regard has been lost on both sides, Bailey adds.
“There used to be greater respect among journalists and government communicators,” he says. “Now journalists probably trust government communicators even less than before, and my guess is that government communicators don't really trust journalists anymore.”