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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Well, shut my mouth
Why are state workers letting PR pros do all the talking?

The other day I called a state employee, someone I'd interviewed a few years back. She was knowledgeable and articulate, and I'm pretty sure my article made her - and her employer - look good. But this time, she cut me off in mid-preamble.

"Right now, the method for reporters is for you to call ____ ." She named the agency's spokesperson, her voice resonating with fear, adding quickly, "I will transfer you."

And with that I was rerouted to the voice mail of a PR flack who, no surprise, knew nothing about the issue at hand and had to look into it, quite likely by asking this same employee.

It's happening more and more: Frontline employees, especially at the state level, are fobbing media contacts onto public-relations experts, who generally don't know as much as the original sources.

"I've noticed that over the last couple of years," says Dee Hall, a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal. "There's a reticence of rank-and-file employees to talk to the press."

Hall senses employees are afraid that if they say the wrong thing - or anything at all - they'll get in trouble.

A recent Isthmus column mentioned the frustration of Cheri Maples, a former Department of Corrections official, at having to clear all contacts with the press. As she saw it, "Everything was designed to protect the governor from any potential bad publicity."

Faced with such constraints, Maples resigned. It was a loss for the state and public, the triumph of spin control over good government.

Some state agencies have explicit policies directing workers to refer media to PR staff. For instance, the "Procedure for Handling Media Calls" at the Department of Health and Family Services gives employees contacted by the press "several options." Not among them: just answering the reporter's questions.

And even in cases where an employee is cleared to speak, the policy states, "If the reporter begins to ask questions that was not part of the original framework" - for instance, Shouldn't the verb in that sentence be "were"? - then "they can tell the reporter that they will look into it and get back to them."

Other agencies lack a formal policy but nonetheless make clear their preference that employees refer media calls. "As a general rule, we want them to come to us," says Department of Workforce Development spokesman Dick Jones. "That's our job."

In 2004, according to an Associated Press review, state agencies including higher ed spent upwards of $12 million to employ more than 200 PR staffers, several at salaries above $100,000 a year.

For Hall, the key question is: For whom do they work? "They are paid quite well, and the public has a right to ask whether they are in fact serving the public or their bosses in state government. These are different constituencies."

The obvious answer is that PR flacks mostly serve their bosses in state government. They insulate agency higher-ups from accountability and silence lower-ranking workers who might, in a moment of indiscretion (i.e., candor), make the agency look bad.

It didn't used to be this way - and, at one state agency, it still isn't. Citizens and reporters seeking information from the state Department of Natural Resources may think the R in DNR stands for Runaround: Division A will refer them to Bureau B, which will suggest Unit Head C, who'll defer to Employee D, and so on. But they won't find employees who are afraid or unwilling to speak.

"I would dare say we are probably the best agency as far as empowering our people to talk to the press," boasts DNR spokesman Greg Matthews. The agency's written rules say "All DNR employees are authorized to answer media questions within their competency." The only proviso, and it's a reasonable one, is that employees "are advised not to speculate on what department policies are or should be."

At the other end of the openness spectrum is the state Department of Administration, an agency where just about everyone seems media-averse. Yet DOA spokesman Scott Larrivee says there's no rule against employees fielding media calls. Rather, he explains this reluctance in terms of choice: "We have folks that don't like being put on the spot." (Um, shouldn't that be "who don't"?)

A longtime DOA employee confirmed this to me, aptly enough on condition of anonymity.

"We haven't gotten an e-mail or anything that says you have to do this" - direct reporters to PR staff. But most DOA employees do so anyway, out of fear. "Nobody wants to talk to anybody except through official channels. People are very paranoid and would just as soon let upstairs handle it."

According to this employee, the fear factor at DOA was heightened by the felony conviction of former worker Georgia Thompson, whose 20-minute interview with a TV reporter was used against her in court. In the interview, Thompson insisted that she could not recall why she favored a particular company for a state travel contract. The jury concluded that she applied undue pressure; earlier this week, she began serving an 18-month prison term.

I agree something doesn't seem right about this prosecution. A woman's career was ruined, and life upended, though there's no evidence she acted for personal gain. Even so, with regard to media contact, this case better illustrates the exception than the rule.

Usually, when frontline workers avoid the press, it's not because they fear the press; it's because they fear their bosses. And usually, they could do a better job fielding media inquiries than the PR flacks.

It's only in rare instances, like when employees feel the need to lie or conceal, that talking to the media is a bad idea. In these situations, they should leave it to the professionals.

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