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