The ethics of flacks - Page 2

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

I think of it as the people of San Francisco."

But other flacks, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Maggie Lynch, have a more adversarial relationship with the press and have been known to chew out journalists who write unflattering stories, although she agrees that flacks should maintain high ethical standards.

"It's my job to point out what's good about what the agency does," Lynch told us. "I pride myself on my directness and my honesty.... I think the standards should be the same for reporters and public information officers, that you need to be honest."

As the tenor of her comments indicates, there can be a dynamic tension between flacks and journalists that sometimes gets testy. And that can be exacerbated when the flack works for an agency under strong public scrutiny, such as Muni or the Mayor's Office.

That's why Peskin said his code is important. "Transparency in an electoral democracy is what keeps the system honest," said Peskin, who agreed that the issues associated with the Mayor's Office of Communications go beyond the lie Ragone told about his blogging. "There is no question the Mayor's Office has repeatedly failed to adhere to the Sunshine Ordinance."

Without commenting on the past, Ballard pledged to cooperate in the future. "We will comply with the spirit and the letter of the Sunshine Ordinance."

In addition to Peskin's legislation, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has announced a new program that offers expanded training for the city's flacks, covering Sunshine Ordinance compliance, legal guidance, and ethical guidelines. "It would be up to policy makers whether they want to make it mandatory," Dorsey said.

Ironically, the Guardian attempted to interview someone from the Public Relations Society of America (whose code of conduct Peskin incorporated into his legislation) for this story, but we were unsuccessful despite days of trying. Judy Voss, the contact person listed in its code of ethics, referred me to Janet Troy, the vice president of public relations, who spent 10 minutes asking me questions about the questions I had and said she would have someone get back to me. Despite several days of my calling and e-mailing her, neither she nor anyone from the PRSA got back to me by press time.

Luckily, there are alternatives to the PRSA. The National Association of Government Communicators has an even stricter code of conduct for public-sector flacks. It includes this central tenet: "We believe that truth is inviolable and sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that the public-at-large and each citizen therein has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about their government." *