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By Steve Kelman

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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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Reader comments

Fri, Aug 1, 2014

The bar is much lower for government agencies compared to Private Sector. One set of standards for Private Sector - lower standards for Government. Grow and Spend is government strategy - has been for many decades. Hold a meeting - spend more money. Propose solutions, talk innovation - do nothing but always spend more money.

Thu, Jul 31, 2014

Possible Maximum of $15,000 to get other people to do your work for you. Good Idea: fire all the government execs and replace their work product with those who can do the same (or better) for a promise of $15,000, i.e. more results and better cost effective product!!! Compition what a novel Idea!!!! (pun intended for those who don't get it!)

Thu, Jul 31, 2014

Yes, it is difficult for Government to get good stories. It is also difficult for private businesses to get good stories as well. What is interesting is the differences the two are treated. If it is Government getting bad press, you get some people calling for change in leadership, some want to eliminate that agency, and others want to throw more money at it to supposedly fix it. If it is a private sector business, how often to you see calls for people to throw more money at the business? Probably none. Usually, the business either has to fix the problem on their own, sometimes the only outside help is a loan that they have to pay back, or they go out of business. In this aspect, the Government agency comes out really well as they can also often wait for the press to get tired of the story and then keep doing business as usual without any serious repercussions. The people calling for the agency to go away still get stuck with the associated taxes, regulations, and bad services because the political will of others forces the associated problems on them - unlike in the private sector where people can take their business elsewhere. That is the main reason why the voices knocking the government can get so loud.

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