By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

How to get good media stories about government

TSA airport screener

A contest to make airport security screening less taxing produced the elusive positive mainstream media story on agency operations.

Along with about 9 million other Americans -- quite a large number, although down about half since 1980 -- I watch the NBC Nightly News whenever I am home at the time it is shown. I was amazed the other night to see Brian Williams, just before a commercial break, alert the audience that there would be a story coming up next about the Transportation Security Administration's contest to get ideas for reducing security lines.

Sure enough, the NBC news was actually running a favorable story about one of my favorite procurement/public management reforms, contests. Brian Williams noted that TSA was "offering rewards totaling about $15,000" for the best ideas the public submits, and actually noted on the air that the NBC website included more information about the contest. (You can watch a shortened version of the segment, and see NBC's instructions to potential entrants, here. The contest deadline, by the way, is Aug. 15.)

I was delighted, of course that national television was featuring, in a favorable context, this management innovation -- folks in government organizing or considering contests, take note! More importantly, though, I thought there were some broader lessons here for that hardest of tricks, getting favorable media attention for something a government agency is doing.

We just need to take it for given that media coverage will emphasize the negative (about institutions in general, not only government), and that is what it is. It is hard to get attention for a "good news" story about agency performance, especially if the source is the agency itself -- journalists inherently distrust such self-promotional pitches.

I suspect it may be easier to get favorable stories about innovative ways government interacts with citizens or even manages itself. The kind of story I think has a chance is one like this contest story, which emphasizes a non-bureaucratic, less buttoned-down, somewhat (at least by agency standards) edgier innovation in how the government does business. Given people's stereotypes about boring government bureaucracies and pencil pushers, this kind of story has a "man bites dog" character that might appeal to some journalists -- especially those used to dealing with conventional, overly serious bureaucrat types.

Yet even here, I think feds need to accept that the reporter or producer won't just take the agency's word for its version of the story, and maybe even invite the journalist to talk with others.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 30, 2014 at 8:03 AM


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