The ethics of flacks

Deception by former Newsom press secretary prompts legislation creating a code of conduct for the city's public information officers

They go by many names: public relations professionals, spokespeople, public information officers, press secretaries, liaisons, public affairs practitioners, press agents, or — the widely used slang — flacks. They are the gatekeepers of records and access to their powerful bosses, either a conduit or barrier for those seeking information.

A spotlight was shined on the role of flacks in San Francisco last month when Peter Ragone, then the influential press secretary for Mayor Gavin Newsom, was caught posting comments under fake names on some local blogs and then lying about it to journalists.

The incident prompted Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin to call for Ragone's ouster (which Newsom resisted, before last week transferring Ragone to his reelection campaign team, where he's not dealing directly with the press or public) and to craft legislation creating standards of conduct for the city's public information officers.

"There are bright ethical lines that cannot be crossed," Peskin told the Guardian. "Passing this is a wake-up call to people so busy playing politics that they've forgotten their moral responsibility."

The code calls for the city's public information officers to be honest and accessible and to "advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information to the public and the press."

The legislation, which will soon be heard in the Rules Committee before going to the full board, notes that "it is critically important that Public Information [Officers] are viewed by citizens and the media as honest and trustworthy brokers of information" and "deception and disinformation severely damages the public trust and limits the City's ability to serve the public."

Many activists and journalists say that's a serious problem right now, particularly in the Mayor's Office of Communications, which has become known for aggressively pushing deceptive political spin and repeatedly blocking the release of public documents, according to rulings by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. In addition to Ragone, deputy press secretary Jennifer Petrucione is widely seen by those she deals with as a less than forthright and forthcoming broker of information.

But new press secretary Nathan Ballard, whose first day was March 5, said he supports the Peskin legislation and promises to maintain high ethical standards. "My overall philosophy is I'd like an accessible press office. You should be able to get the information you need with dispatch," he told us. "The public has a right to receive information from us that is true, accurate, and fair."

He made a distinction between private-sector public relations people and public-sector information officers, noting that the latter should be held to a higher standard of conduct because they work for taxpayers, not corporations or just politicians. It was a point echoed by City Attorney's Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey, one of the most widely respected flacks in San Francisco.

"I have a duty to taxpayers and citizens to provide information, whether it's good for my client or not," Dorsey told us. "Even when you're working for an elected official, it's the taxpayers who pay you."

Dorsey accepts that it's the nature of the job and a free democratic society that sometimes his boss will take lumps in the press, but he said, "I will never hold it against a journalist for portraying the city attorney as a bad guy when we do look like the bad guy."

Eileen Shields, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, agreed: "I don't think of my client as the Department of Public Health of Mitch Katz.