I tell journalism students going into public relations about best practices for dealing with negative information related to their company or government agency:
Release the information yourself, and do it early; accept responsibility; put your best foot forward, and explain mitigating factors; do what you can to shape the narrative. Be fast, honest and persistent.
Now that I’m back on the reporter’s end of the process, I see some agencies doing the opposite. They circle the wagons and hope the journalist will wander away. They drag their heels for weeks or days and then claim there isn’t enough time to find basic data, or even talk to the reporter.
Once the story is published, the previously silent agencies often howl that the journalist got things wrong. They shift gears from lackadaisical to very concerned when the ink is dry or the piece is posted online.
A case in point is the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services’ cancer registry. Twenty years ago, in the midst of a leukemia cluster that sickened 17 children and killed three of them, I wrote about the registry’s dismal failures. The Legislature reacted; lawmakers poured money into the agency and clarified its responsibilities.
This year, I discovered the cancer registry was apparently backsliding on those reforms and now reports less information to the public than it did in 2002. I sent a query to health officials on Oct. 5 and followed up with more requests.
When deadline hit more than two weeks later, the health department had not responded to a single question. Agency staff members were too busy meeting a federal reporting deadline, they said.
Thus, there’s little information from officials in this month’s cover story. But I’ve now got another example for J-school students: When media rakes government agencies over the coals, the worst burns often are self-inflicted.