FCW Insider

Help a reporter out: 6 tips for working with the media

Alice Lipowicz reports on a survey of journalists who say that federal agencies almost always restrict access to agency officials for interviews.

An agency's public affairs department can be either a blessing or a curse for a journalist, sometimes a bit of each. The release of the survey provides an opportunity to offer some tips for public affairs officers who want to help get their agency's message out. (Sometimes the PAO's job is to try to prevent reporters from getting access or information; the tips below won't be of much help in those cases.)

* Make officials available as quickly as possible. Reporters work on deadlines, and if you can line up an interview appointment two days after the deadline passes, it does no good.

* While monitoring the interview, let the interviewee answer the questions. Speak up if the interviewee misspeaks, or to fill in data that the interviewee doesn't have at his fingertips, but otherwise sit back and let the agency official do most of the talking.

* Respond quickly if a reporter needs a few facts for an article, or to clarify something said in an earlier interview. Again, time is usually a factor, especially for reporters writing for an online news site or daily newspaper.

* Don't ask to see an article before publication. Most reputable media outlets won't allow this, but most reporters will be happy to discuss specific points where you might be concerned about a misunderstanding.

* Be pro-active about promoting positive news, including offering officials for interviews. The media is often accused of never covering the good news, but that is in part because people don't let us know when there is good news. We're not mind-readers. Well, not most of us.

* A reporter's relationship to the organizations on which he or she reports can sometimes be adversarial. Our job is to inform the public, not necessarily to make a particular agency look good. But most reporters are responsible professionals who aren't interested in sensationalizing the news. We appreciate candor, and we need responsiveness, and we try to report fairly and accurately. A good public affairs officer can play a pivotal role in making that possible.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Mar 14, 2012 at 12:18 PM3 comments

The DOD IG's disappearing report

One of the challenges of trying to provide readers with links to online resources is that those resources don't always stay put. 

story from last week provides a good example. Matthew Weigelt covered a report from the Defense Department's Inspector General regarding the department's accuracy in verifying the status of service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

We published the story and, as we always try to do when possible, linked to the IG report.

The story began to get readers and we promoted it in the next day's e-mail newsletter – and then the report disappeared.

The link stopped working, and our staff was unable to locate it elsewhere on the IG's website, until today.

It turned out that the IG's office had taken the report down because “there was an inappropriate warning on the cover that was not applicable to the public version,” according to statement the DOD IG's public affairs office sent to Weigelt.

The report is unclassified and should not have had the warning label, but nothing changed in the content, according to the Office of the IG.

Meanwhile, it left us unable to link to the resource that the story was about, and no explanation of what had happened. The link has been restored. If you read the original story and were frustrated that you couldn't read the report, click here to return to it.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Mar 06, 2012 at 12:18 PM1 comments

Tracking a telework turnaround

It wasn't so long ago that a typical telework story in Federal Computer Week followed a predictable arc: Feds want it, outside groups encourage it, and managers resist it, usually for fuddy-duddy reasons such as a concern that employees will slack off if not watched.

In the past year or so, there has been a real change. The stories we've done more recently have largely lacked the management-aversion angle or at least featured it much less prominently. Managers’ resistance seems to be breaking down, and the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, coupled with President Barack Obama's strong support, has no doubt gone some way toward easing the transition. Technology improvements that include faster, more secure home networks and the proliferation of cloud services have also helped.

Coverage now is more likely to focus on specific situations, such as the technological innovations that are giving rise to a virtual workforce or questions about unusual situations that might fall outside the boundaries of a standard telework policy.

For example, our workforce reporter, Camille Tuutti, wrote a blog entry about a question a reader had submitted: Should a worker who lives close to the office be allowed to telework?

“She lives less than a mile from work,” the reader wrote. “She could walk. Would you allow her to telework when it's obvious she wants to be able to go to the store when she wants, watch a TV show when she wants, etc.?”

Readers were generally supportive of the woman and didn’t share the concerns of the person posing the question. They wondered: If her work is satisfactory, what's the problem?

“Your assumption that she ‘really’ wants to drive around town all day and watch TV is so old-school that, for me, it's a tip-off that the management style in your office should be more closely examined,” one reader chided the questioner.

Readers also disputed the suggestion that telework is primarily about reducing pollution by encouraging less driving. “This is a ridiculous thread,” one wrote. “If people who choose to live far away from the office are given special consideration, people smart enough to live within walking distance should be allowed the same consideration.”

Another article, also by Tuutti, offered some examples of small agencies that have embraced telework with good results. The Library of Congress and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration were featured as success stories, with examples of small pilot tests that grew into widespread programs.

Our readers responded enthusiastically to the article.

“I...believe the apprehension in embracing a mobile workforce is more fear than anything else — fear of not knowing and fear of loosening the reins on employees,” one wrote. “I have been slowly introduced to the telework program and now absolutely love it. Production and morale have dramatically increased in our department.”

“We’ve seen many success stories in the year since the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010,” commented Sam Davis, a vice president at the American Management Association’s Enterprise Government Solutions. “We expect to continue to see an increase in government agencies adopting telework for many reasons, including the recruitment and retention incentives mentioned. Leadership development training is a crucial part of this process as organizations continue to make these necessary changes.”

But another reader named Mike, commenting on the same article, added a cautionary note. “It's always a case-by-case basis.… I see more camaraderie and teamwork when folks are at work together. Short-notice meetings…usually require folks to be [physically] available to attend.”

Overall, it's fair to say that the tide has turned on telework. The conversation is no longer about whether the government will embrace the concept but how and under what conditions. Moreover, the conversation is shifting to even broader issues of mobility in off-site workers. The term “telework” still connotes an employee tied to a location, such as a home office, but mobility suggests an even greater freedom. Think of someone with an iPad at a coffee shop, reading their work e-mail over a latte and a danish.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Feb 22, 2012 at 12:18 PM11 comments