Public information should be just that

September 24, 2011

We recall, perhaps even with some perverse fondness, the Iraqi Minister of Information, whose job before the regime was toppled was to tell one and all how well the war was going.

And those with a longer memory will recall the administration of the late Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who muzzled State House employees to the point of black comedy, when public health officials were afraid to even discuss public health alerts.

So when the Washington County Commissioners announced this month that from now on, with limited exceptions, county employees will only be able to speak to the press through a new communications officer, local media could be excused for reacting with an arched eyebrow.

The concerns are relatively obvious. First, it adds another layer of calls and contacts that can delay — or even serve to block — public inquiries. Second, requirements that news be filtered through a public relations agent invites speculation that the commissioners are attempting to control and sanitize the news.

It is in the world of public information, after all, that sad faces don’t exist, mass layoffs are known as “enhanced separation packages” and the like.

Far too often, governments gag their employees for the sole offense of telling the truth. If this is behind the commissioners’ action, we would object in the strongest possible terms. It’s the department heads, after all, who have the familiarity and expertise that allows them to speak with authority on topics that spokespeople (and even the commissioners themselves) are not likely to possess.

The press represents the people, and when the county funnels media inquiries through a PR office, it is not cheating the newspapers and TV and radio stations out of information, it is cheating its own people — the people who put them in office in the first place. So the bar for a successful public information operation, in our view, is a high one.

This is not to say that public information offices are always obstructions to news. A good spokesperson can identify what is and is not important, and can often present information to the media in clear and concise fashion, helping department heads who might not be as well-versed in the field of mass communications. Mary King, who is leaving her job as the City of Hagerstown’s spokeswoman at the end of the month, has been exemplary in her handling of press inquiries and in the distribution of public alerts and of city matters and events that might be of interest to the people. Hopefully, her successor will be equally as helpful.

So with the optimism that comes with knowing that it can be done, and done properly, we welcome the county’s new spokeswoman, Sarah Lankford, to the job. We anticipate a productive working relationship for many years to come.

Provided, of course, that the commissioners understand that the job of a public affairs officer is to disseminate information, not to keep it under wraps.

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