Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Open Records Trends Still Concern Journalists

Journalists and government communicators need to understand and help each other "to keep our democracy proud and strong."

That opinion comes from Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, who addressed NAGC's 2008 Communications School in Albuquerque on Wednesday. Her topic was the Freedom of Information Act and other open records laws.

In her experience, which includes being a network news bureau chief, there is a direct correlation between news coverage and governments/agencies open records policies. “Those that were the most successful were the most open. Those that feared the worst were the most secretive.”

RTNDA, founded 62 years ago, has seen dramatic changes in the ways reporters may cover government agencies. At one point, the electronic press was barred in many federal events from bringing electronic equipment, even to news conference. Those barriers have largely disappeared, with the exception of federal courts, she says.

Progress continued, she notes, until the terrorist attacks in 2001. "Overnight, information disappeared from government Web sites," and the attitude toward openness with the press changed. Another dangerous trend she sees is the increased number of subpoenas demanding journalists sources and records.

While states and localities often have open records laws in place, that is not the case at the federal level, she says. RTNDA worked for passage for "The Open Government Act," but is concerned because of attempts to change the new law. The organization also is extending its annual "Sunshine Week" to a "Sunshine Campaign" that will last through the November elections. Part of the campaign is to get candidates to publicly support open records laws.

One other concern for the electronic media is the shift of newspapers to create more online content, which now includes audio and video reports. This could have an impact on local television stations, although those stations continue to be acknowledged by the public as its primary source of news.

How do you feel about the level of cooperation between your government agency and the press? Do you believe open records laws at the federal level should be tightened or loosened? If you are in Albuquerque, what other parts of Cochran's speech resonated with you?

Case Study: Ethics Crisis Shuts Down Power Company

Many government agencies have a crisis communications plan in place. Memphis, Light, Gas and Water certainly had one. Well, one that covered things like disasters, gas leaks or pandemics. They didn't have one, though, that covered an ethics crisis.

When word broke that a city councilman had used $16,000 worth of utility services and didn't have to pay a bill, MLGW found itself in the middle of a crisis they had not anticipated. Glen Thomas, Communications and Public Relations Supervisor, said the backlash from the public and the media was immediate.

Thomas shared his review of how he and his company reacted to that crisis, including revealing the missteps that happened along the way. In hindsight, he said, those mistakes included:
  • not having a crisis communications plan in place that covered ethical issues;
  • not reviewing all documents that were publicly distributed so they could anticipate media responses; and
  • being too slow on the first day of media coverage.
Since then, MLGW has established new leadership, restructured the company, revised its credit policies, implemented new customer service programs, increased internal and external communications and not have greater transparency.

Does your crisis communications plan have an ethics component? Are there other examples that demonstrate a need for such a plan? If you were in Albuquerque, what other lessons did you take away from the presentation?

NAGC Creates Scholarship Program

NAGC on Tuesday announced the creation of a scholarship program and named it after a president who led the organization through difficult times.

The NAGC board named the award after Gaye Farris, who served as NAGC president from 2000 to 2003. As someone who was recruited by her to join NAGC a number of years ago, it was my honor to announce the establishment of the scholarship during NAGC's annual business meeting.

Gaye assumed leadership of the organization during a time when a vote was being considered to disband. Her determined effort eventually resulted in a dramatic membership and financial turnaround for NAGC. She has remained a dedicated servant to NAGC, even returning to a temporary board position last year.

After being surprised with the honor, she told the group that her husband had heart problems around the same time as the NAGC difficulties. "Both my husband and NAGC were sick at the same time," she told the audience. "I was determined to make sure they both got healthy."

The NAGC board of directors will be determining the criteria for the scholarship program, including its funding and distribution mechanism. If the program is half as successful and strong as Gaye, then it has a great future.

Branding and Identity

Creating a good logo requires getting the right information up front, so designers can create a look that will work for all the organization's purposes. That advice, given to attendees of NAGC's 2008 Communication School in Albuquerque, came from Gilliland Communications LLC Creative Director Collette Gilliland.

It's critical for designers to know what ideas clients have when it comes to creating a corporate identity, she says, since their buy-in will ultimately decide on what design is chosen. When working with a client, she asks these questions:

1. When you think of your organization, what images, text, color or symbols do you think of?
2. What color or colors do you think would best represent this log for your organization?
3. What imagery should be used with this logo?
4. What elements of old or existing logos would you like to see?
5. What is your idea of a timeless logo?

There are essentially four ways to design a logo, she says:

1. Pictorial (A seal)
2. Text logo (Intel)
3. Graphic element (Nike swoosh)
4. Graphic element with text (Hallmark)

Designers also need to know how a logo will be used. What will it go on? (Buildings, buses, clothing, Web sites, letterhead, etc.) How much can the client spend to produce the logo? What surfaces will the logo be used on? Is it necessary for the logo to represent what the organization does? Is it important for the public to know what the organization represents simply by looking at the logo?

Then, after the design, it is important for the organization to create graphic identity standards so the logo is used properly in all communications.

Do you like your agency logo? Did you use a similar process when you created yours? If you are in Albuquerque, what else did you take away from this session?

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

For Winston Churchill, it often involved kicking trash cans and groaning. For Steve Jobs, a calligraphy class helped influence the introduction of the first Mac computer. For speechwriter Hal Gordon, it’s great books, art and opera.

Gordon addressed attendees of NAGC’s 2008 Communications School in Albuquerque. The former speechwriter for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell believes creativity is critical to good writing. Using Thomas Edison’s quote that genius was one percent inspiration and 99 percent inspiration as a backdrop, he offers four pieces of advice.

1. Look inside yourself. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” he says, pointing out you must draw inspiration from your own life. If your life is not very interesting, then you need to make changes so that you find inspiration and creativity around you. He recommends reading “Letters to a Young Poet” and “Becoming a Writer.”

2. Look outside yourself. “Sharpen your powers of observation,” he says, citing a quote from Yogi Berra: “you can see a lot by observing.” Also look to those in your profession for inspiration. For example, the best way for a journalist to become a better writer is to study the writings of the best journalists.

3. Practice creativity. “Make it a habit,” he says. “Creation requires discipline.” If creativity is important in your line of work, you have to practice just like any practitioner would. As a famous pianist once said, “If I don’t practice one day, I notice. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics notice. If I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it." Gordon suggests making an appointment with yourself to write and to take advantage of creative works around you, such as reading great books and soaking in art. And when it comes to hobbies, choose ones that help the creative process

4. Have a strategy for the moments you are stuck. “You can get a lot of work done if you procrastinate creatively,” he says. When you are working on a project, always collect more material than you can possibly use, so you can pick and choose. And be aware of what stimulates your creativity.

What do you think of Gordon’s approach to creativity? What steps do you take in order to kick-start your writing project? If you are in Albuquerque, what parts of Gordon’s speech appealed most to you?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Case Study: the New Mexico Treasurer's Office

Imagine being at work one day and the FBI shows up. They seize all your equipment, forbid you from using your cell phone and even monitor your trips to the restroom. Oh yeah, they've arrested your boss and you've only been the government communicator there for six weeks.

That's what happened to Jodi McGinnis Porter one day, who at that time worked in the New Mexico Treasurer's Office. She shared her story with attendees of NAGC's 2008 Communication School in Albuquerque.

She was allowed to use an FBI phone and call her husband to let him know she wouldn't be able to pick up the kids that evening. "Why?" he asked. Her response: "I can't tell you but turn on the TV and I think you'll figure it out."

Porter was put in a difficult position. The media was all over the story, but she had no computer to work on. She borrowed the laptop of an FBI PIO and was only allowed to fax out a statement.

For the next several weeks, she had to put up with working in a closely-monitored office, a boss who ignored growing public sentiment to resign, editorial cartoons blasting the office, and growing stories of new allegations.

She built trust with reporters and learned a lot of lessons about crisis communications. While she now works for another agency, she has a new respect and appreciation for those who have to deal with such a crisis.

How would you handle her situation? Has something similar happened to you?

"Everybody Has an Electronic Megaphone"

"The days of controlling the message is over," says Steve Crescenzo. "You might as well join the program."

Government agencies need to get over their fear of social media, Crescenzo told NAGC members at the opening general session in Albuquerque. The CEO of Crescenzo Communications says the main reason they don't is because leaders of the agencies are "afraid of losing control of the conversation."

With so many people able to publish online and no gatekeepers to control their content, the message is being controlled by outside forces, he says. Government needs to learn the new media being and use it to convey their messages and build public trust.

Great examples of agencies who are using social media are the TSA blog "Evolution of Security," the U.S. Census Bureau's daily podcast, and the "All Hands News" from the U.S. Navy.

Social media only works if it meets the following criteria, he says:

1. It must serve a purpose for the organization;
2. You have to fill the “entertain expectations” – especially for podcasts and blogs;
3. Communicators need to be involved in the creation of the content;
4. You need to be coaches, not just “Public Affairs Speicalists;” and
5. You must allow others into the conversation…even if you’re secretly controlling it.

For those of you in Albuquerque, tell us what you thought of Steve's presentation. Did he hit the mark? Will you be taking his advice and start adopting social media?

Government Communicators Meet in Albuquerque

The National Association of Government Communicators is holding its annual Communications School in Albuquerque, New Mexico this week. We'll provide some live entries from the event and follow up with more observations next week. To see the agenda, visit our homepage at

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Web Site Connects Journalists with PR Pros

PR Week reports on a new Web site to help government communicators connect to journalists. "Help a Reporter Out" is described by the magazine "as a possible free alternative to PR Newswire's (PRN) ProfNet."

At first glance, the site seems very easy to use. Peter Shankman, the creator of the site, encourages PR pros to use the service wisely. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Top 30 Newspaper Web Sites

Which newspaper Web sites should you be targeting with your news releases? An Editor and Publisher article lists the top 30 newspaper Web sites for March. The New York Times remains the top Web site, with USA Today, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times rounding out the top five.

E&P says impressive gains were recorded by The Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Village Voice.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Best Practices: White House E-newsletter

More government communication offices are using tools to give the public a broader view of activities than the public can get through the media. Even the White House has a need to get other messages out.

The White House allows the public to subscribe to a weekly newsletter that gives readers more details on the president's busy schedule, as well as link to press briefings, statements from the president, the weekly radio address and even personnel announcements. Oddly, the weekly issues do not appear to be available online. Here is a link to a sample from the White House Web site.

Are there other government agency newsletters that you like and believe could inspire other government communicators? Send us an email at or leave a comment below.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Case Study: Chicago Transit Crisis Reaction

One of our goals of this blog is to highlight developing case studies, so you can see how other government agencies and communicators are handling crisis and other situations as they unfold.

Today, in Chicago, the mayor's office is reacting to a crisis last week that left city train riders without help or instruction when the train stopped in a tunnel. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the mayor initially praised crews last week but now is demanding changes in how the city reacts to similar situations in the future.

From a PR perspective, what do you think of the mayor's reaction? Here's what the people of Chicago are saying in response to the Tribune article.

Tony Snow Joins CNN

Former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow has joined CNN's political team.

Video Blogs: The Easy Way

One of my favorite emails each morning is "Al's Morning Meeting." Written by former journalist and current Poynter contributor and consultant Al Tompkins, the daily email is designed to provide reporters with story ideas and insights to emerging trends in the industry.

Yesterday, he described how he posts his video blogs. Using a camera he bought online for $60 and other inexpensive software that actually provides a teleprompter for it, he shows just how easy it is to do a video report suitable for the Web. Watch the video and you'll be ready to start posting yourself.

Have other tips like this to share with other government communicators? Send us an email at or leave a comment below.

Poll Results: Salaries

In our first poll, survey takers reported results a bit different to NAGC's first Trends and Salaries Survey. Fifty-three percent reported they believed their salaries were comparable to colleagues from across the country. Fifteen percent said their salaries were above average and 30% said their salaries were below average.

In NAGC's survey of government communicators last year, 42 percent reported their salaries were below average, 40 percent said their salaries were on average and about four percent said their salaries were above average.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

AP vs. News Editors

There is growing tension between Associated Press and some of its member newspapers. This report in Editor and Publisher talks about a clash that erupted during the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual gathering in Washington, D.C. this week.

Those who follow journalism know this situation has been brewing for weeks. For government communicators, particularly those charged with distributing messages nationally, this could have serious implications and deserves to be monitored.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Speechwriter's Resource: #1 songs

Here's a nifty little site that speechwriters and other government communicators may find useful when you are looking for something noteworthy to note an anniversary or celebration. David Pogue, tech columnist for The New York Times, writes in his blog today about a site that allows you to find out the number one song in America on any given day.

Josh Hosler's Web site easily gives you access to the number one songs from the time Billboard started charting the tunes. Whether you want to know what song was number one on the day your guest of honor was born or when your special friend graduated from college, this site allows you to find out the answer to those questions, without having to reveal your age.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Press Secretaries in the News

Some interesting articles about press secretaries in today's news.

  • Reviews of a new book, The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary, are coming out. Read this review in Sunday's Providence Journal.
  • Rob Courdry has been tapped to play Ari Fleischer in Oliver Stone's new movie, "W," according to this article from MTV's Movies Blog.
  • In a related article to today's posting on reputations, the press secretary for Pittsburgh's Mayor has resigned under a cloud of scandal, according to this article in the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Find more articles about press secretaries, spokespersons, marketing and other topics in the right hand sidebar of this blog, under "News You Can Use." Click the category you are interested in to view Google's top five news stories. Have other categories you think we should include? Email us at

Holding Ourselves -- and Our Colleagues -- Responsible

Reputations can take years to make, but only a moment to destroy. History is full of examples where one misstep by an adored public servant damages his or her legacy, perhaps for a lifetime.

For government communicators, too much of our time is spent reacting to news rather than generating it. A report, "Governmentwide Purchase Cards," released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is another example where the costly actions of a few employees hurts the reputation of an entire industry.

The report focuses on credit card abuse by federal government employees. The examples it cites are juicy. GAO found purchases for internet dating services, $160 per person dinners and employees buying iPods for personal use. In a 10-year period, purchases on federal credit cards jumped from $3 million to nearly $18 million. In addition, several agencies could not find or account or some equipment purchased.

Consequently, several agencies over the next few days are going to have to respond to these charges. Already, we see several stories about the report in the news. To those of you having to do damage control this week, we feel your pain.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Headline Grabbers: 4-10-08

Some news headlines and a quote that caught our eye in today, all of which have implications for government communicators.
And San Francisco spokesperson Nathan Ballard appears to have a good attitude about his job. Check out a great quote from him that appeared in the New York Times.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Learning About Technology in Algiers

A group with state legislative ties is in Algeria this week, charged with sharing information on media relations and how to use technology to communicate with citizens. While this type of outreach is not necessarily newsworthy, the information they are sharing with the world in a blog they created for the trip has some great insights for goverment communicators.

For example, are you familiar with and USTREAM.TV? Ric Cantrell, Chief Deputy of the Utah State Senate, set up a live stream on from Algiers using "a cheap video camera, my laptop computer and an Internet connection." They've set up an Algiers YouTube channel as well, used translation software and are still keeping up with work back in the states.

It's an impressive display of what creativity and an understanding of technology's capabilities can do for government communicators. Check it out and leave your comments.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Is News Consolidation Good For Business?

CBS News denied today that it was considering outsourcing some of its news gathering to CNN. The denial came after a story in The New York Times said such plans were being discussed.

Media mergers and corporations squeezing more and more from reporters is not news, but it got us pondering how these media trends affect government communicators. In one sense, fewer reporters and media outlets makes the market more competitive and harder to get our messages out. On the other hand, if there are fewer traditional outlets for our messages, does it open up our ability to aggressively pursue non-traditional media sources (such as social media, blogs, podcasts, etc.) to reach our audiences?

Let us know how you are dealing with the shrinking media market. Is it changing the way you and your agency operate? Does it make you depend on traditional media less?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Is the Media Required to Provide Full Story Disclosure?

Jen Rae Hein, press secretary for Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, feels deceived by journalists from the University of Nebraska's Daily Nebraskan. She finds herself deep in a spot where journalistic ethics, news and the role of a government communicator collide.

An article in Friday's Omaha World-Herald indicates that the student newspaper, working on a story on a convicted killer who gives tours at the governor's mansion, set up a private tour by saying it was working on a story about the house being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hein, according to the article, considered banning reporters from the governor's press conferences but chose instead to simply take the paper off its distribution list.

What do you think? Did the newspaper break ethical boundaries to get the story it wanted, or could it have achieved its goals by being up front with the focus of the story? If they had revealed their story focus, would the governor's office have had the right to say no to a private tour? Should the governor's office now punish the newspaper? Leave your comments on how you would react.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Report Gauges Salaries, Trends for Government Communicators

For the first time, government communicators now have data to compare their salaries and benefits with their colleagues from across the nation.

NAGC recently released its first "Trends and Salary Report," which shines a spotlight on a profession often overlooked. NAGC members may download a copy of the report for free. Others may order a copy from NAGC.

Do you believe your salary and benefits are up to national standards? Take our poll at the top of the page until April 18 to express your opinion, or leave a comment to this story below.

In addition to salary breakdowns, here are some of the survey's highlights:
  • Women dominate the profession. Nearly two out of every three government communicators are female.
  • The largest percentage of government communicators are between 36 and 60 years old, suggesting that people do not enter government communications directly from college, but come from other fields.
  • Most government communicators are pleased with their agency's attitude toward public relations and most believe the media does a fair job of covering their agency. But more than 80 percent believes their agency's Web site needs to be improved.
  • At least 72 percent of government communicators say writing, editing, drafting news releases, producing web content and holding media events are core parts of their jobs. Only five percent write for blogs and only seven percent produce podcasts. However, they see this changing dramatically in the next two years, while they see less use of celebrity spokespersons and producing magazines, brochures and other publications.
  • Nearly three-fourths of communicators find it impossible to do their jobs in a 40-hour work week.
  • About 58 percent believe public cynicism is at an all-time high.
  • In terms of contracted services, government communicators see more need for media measurement, Web conferencing and Web hosting.

Welcome to NAGC's Blog for Government Communicators

The principal purpose of the National Association of Government Communicators is to promote and advance the profession of government communicators at the national, state and local levels. This blog represents another advancement in NAGC's efforts to better network government communicators.

We believe this blog will become another important tool to help those in our profession share information, learn from each other and watch real-time case studies unfold in the media.

Anyone may comment on any posting listed here. We encourage you to generate discussions and offer your perspective on the items we share.

For the last two years, the NAGC Board of Directors has restructured the organization, strengthened its ability to interact with members and offered members new tools to network with one another. We hope you enjoy this new blog and the new NAGC!