PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Pending questions about government public relations:
Did the Pentagon engage in inappropriate public relations?
© 2009 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

A companion article titled Government Public Relations describes the origin and scope of laws that are meant to restrict goverment spending on public relations. This article which asks if the Pentagon is fully abiding by these laws was triggered by news stories that broke during the summer of 2009 and cited two types of questionable activity by the Department of Defense.

Most people -- including public relations practitioners who do not work for the government -- are unaware of, or unconcerned about, the legal limits placed on government agencies that practice public relations unless something unusual happens. An example is the Associated Press story that appeared on the wires on July 21-22, 2009. Its headline was "Pentagon's use of retirees for PR didn't break rules."

There's no need to go into all the details of the recent incident here. The GAO report does a good job of that. But, if you're one of the public relations practitioners and students who has been unaware of the legal restrictions on government agencies and government employees performing public relations, it's time you became aware of them.

U.S. government agencies rarely have public relations people on their payrolls.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when public relations was first coming into its own as a profession, it was at least as prevalent and widely-accepted in government as it was in business and in the non-profit sector. Since all kinds of organizations had important publics to address, they all welcomed the emerging field of public relations and its tools for working with these publics. They all hired public relations practitioners and, regardless of the nature of the organization, the public relations practitioners' job titles and responsibilities were virtually identical.

But then, some government public relations efforts began running counter to the desires of powerful special interest groups and, as often happens, politics came into play. Lobbyists for some of the aggreived special interests joined forces with political activitists who feared the potential of government propaganda campaigns and persuaded Congress to pass the Gillett Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Commission statute.

On the surface, the Gillett Amendment was relatively innocuous.

But, the Gillett Amendment isn't all that happened. It was just the beginning. Over time, this one piece of federal legislation was interpretted more broadly than it was originally written and, perhaps even more significantly, it inspired subsequent state and local legislation that magnified its impact.

Today, despite the fact that most outside observers would call what they do "public relations," that term is rarely used by government communicators. There are virtually no government employees at the federal, state, or local level with the words "public relations" in their job title. Nor are there publicity specialists or press agents. There are, however, tens of thousands of public information officers and public information specialists whose duties involve public information, public affairs, community relations, and other similar but seemingly more innocuous tasks.

The GAO's recent report on retired military officers who served as media spokespersons to promote the Bush administration's war policies concluded that the Pentagon had pushed the legal limits with this practice, but it had not actually broken the law.

Should Pentagon PR consultants be allowed to limit reporters' access to potential stories?

An Associated Press news story that ran on the wires on Sept. 1, 2009 raised this question but didn't answer it. The story that some newspapers headlined "US drops PR firm that did profiles of war reporters" announced that the military had canceled a $1.5 million contract with the Rendon Group, a public relations firm that had been hired to assist with media services in Afghanistan. The story by Richard Lardner said, in part:

"Rendon handled a broad range of media services, including writing press releases and analyzing coverage of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. The reporter profiles were background information on the journalist that would help commanders know what topics they'd likely ask about, they said.
"Media accounts were very different, however.
"Stars and Stripes, a newspaper partly funded by the Defense Department, said the profiles had been used as recently as last year to keep reporters whose prior coverage had been negative from traveling with U.S. troops in Afghanistan."

The questions raised by this news story are whether, in light of the Gillett Amendment and our long-standing American tradition of providing equal and open access to government activities for all reporters, the U.S. military is authorized, or should be allowed, to engage in such practices?

There are, however, no quick, simple answers to those questions. The full range of realities is too complex to address here, and they get into an awful lot of gray areas that are subject to wide and varying interpretation. Although I'm deeply bothered by several aspects of this situation, at this point, I can't say with certainty that what the Pentagon did was totally wrong.

But, one thing does seem clear: this situation warrants further, official investigation, and not just by the Department of Defense. It should, at the very least, be looked into by the GAO as was the Pentagon's use retired officers as media spokespersons. It may even warrant full-fledged congressional hearings. Perhaps the GAO review could determine that.

Among the questions that need to be asked are:

Regrettably, we're unlikely to get formal answers to these questions because it's unlikely that a formal inquiry will ever be made. Since the Pentagon has already terminated its contract with the Rendon Group and is no longer profiling reporters, legalists consider the questions that have been posed to be moot and will not seek to answer them unless a new situation arises.

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15 May 2012