Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporters generally dislike press spokespeople. That's mostly because the P.R. folks, whom we call "flacks," make more money than we do. But it's also because flacks are rarely as pliant as we want them to be.
The latter sentiment seems to be at play in this Akron Beacon Journal piece on the press shop for the Ohio Supreme Court. The article notes that the court spends $1.1 million on its press office, and has got 11 full-time employees, yet it's impossible to get any of them to talk on the record. The writer carries the miffed tone of someone who has probably failed, one too many times, to yank a quote out of these people.
I can understand the frustration. Any reporter can. But while I might question why the Court is paying so many flacks to say so little, the overall policy of speaking on background, for this office, seems sensible enough.
Reporters don't need court flacks to give them juicy quotes. Justices do that well enough in their opinions. And if you want opposing points of view, go to the lawyers. They're only too happy to talk. What reporters do need from court flacks is procedural information, not points of view. And if you want to quote somebody saying, "The case will be heard on Thursday," then you're probably not a very good writer.
This isn't to say I don't have my beefs with stupid public relations rules.
My latest pet peeve is the one where flacks expect me to fax or e-mail them a list of my questions for the source they guard ahead of time. I understand why some flacks do this--because they're control freaks--but it's just not necessary. If you're scared of my questions, then let's have an off-the-record phone conversation first.
But typing up questions is a waste of my time. It also ignores the usual give and take of human conversation--may I ask a follow-up question, or shall I e-mail it to you first? The most interesting thing I learn in an interview is usually something I didn't expect to find out and wouldn't have known to ask about it.
A flack tried the send-me-your-questions trick while I was reporting my most recent feature for Governing. I won't name where she was from. It goes without saying that I did the only sensible thing: I blew her off. It turned out there were other cities whose P.R. people actually welcome press attention rather than being knee-jerk suspicious of it.
UPDATE: A Florida flack, er, public relations professional, responds.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.