Thursday, July 01, 2010

A Source of the Anechoic Effect Discovered: the Public Relations Person in the Room

A series of posts in journalism blogs last month revealed a mechanism used by health care organizational leaders to shape discussion of the issues that affect their interests, but one that is probably unfamiliar to most health care professionals and the public at large.  Let me provide the key quotes in chronological order.

First, from the Covering Health blog of the Association for Health Care Journalism (10 June, 2010):
Have you recently tried to get information from the federal government or arrange an interview with a federal official?

AHCJ’s Right-to-Know Committee is calling on journalists to report their experiences, as part of a continuing effort to pry open the doors of the federal government. We’re looking for recent anecdotes about journalists’ experiences with public information officers, especially at the Department of Health and Human Services and any of the agencies that are part of it (e.g., CDC, FDA, CMS etc.).

Please write to Felice J. Freyer, Right-to-Know Committee chair, at, about problems you have encountered, including mandates to clear interviews with the press office, slow responses, refused interviews, burdensome requirements (such as written questions and answers only), extreme time limitations on interviews, PIOs listening in on your conversations, or anything else that made it hard for you to get the information and quotes that you needed in time.

The implication here, of course, is that the committee was concerned that journalists attempting to interview employees and officials of US government health agencies may encounter a variety of problems, including public information officers "listening in on your conversation."

Of course, just because the committee was concerned about a possible problem does not mean the problem exists, or is if it exists, is important.

However, a week later this post appeared in the Covering Health blog (17 June, 2010):
MedPage Today, an online breaking-news service for physicians, today instituted a rule requiring reporters to inform readers whenever a press officer has listened in on an interview.

'If a source’s comments are monitored by a press officer, then the person may not have been speaking freely,' said Peggy Peck, vice president and executive editor. 'That’s information readers should have.'

Peck instructed her staff to use phrases like 'said in a telephone interview that was monitored by a public information officer' whenever using quotes from such an interview.

Peck emphasized that a reporter’s goal should be to avoid having a press officer listening to calls or attending face-to-face interviews. 'But if that is the only way a researcher will talk, we need to let our readers know that,' said Peck’s memo to eight reporters.

Peck is a member of AHCJ’s Right-to-Know Committee, and the rule sprang from the committee’s work to end interference by public information officers in newsgathering, especially in the federal government.

'I applaud MedPage Today for taking this step and encourage reporters and editors everywhere to follow suit,' said Felice J. Freyer, chair of the Right-to-Know Committee and a member of AHCJ’s Board of Directors.

'Reporters have come to accept the presence of public relations people at interviews, but it’s really not acceptable. We all know that such eavesdropping hinders the free flow of information – and we need to let our readers know that this is happening.'

Now this is much more clear. Apparently some, maybe most of the information obtained by journalists from interviews of officials and employees of government health care agencies was monitored by public relations people, presumably to keep the interviewees "on message," and remind them not to say anything that did not fit the party line.  Furthermore, such monitoring was not often disclosed by the reports when they wrote about the interview. 

In addition, Paul Raeburn posted this on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog:
I’ve long been troubled by the insistence of some 'public' information officers (they are paid to work for their institutions, not the public, although the interests of the two can sometimes coincide) to listen in or sit in on interviews. Even if they don’t say a word, their presence inevitably changes the interview.

Imagine telling colleagues about the last story you wrote, and what you had to do to get it. Now imagine the same conversation with your colleagues while your editor–on whom your livelihood depends–listens in. I don’t imagine myself dissembling in either set of circumstances, but I can certainly imagine myself telling the story a little differently in each case.

The point is not that information officers are always trying to limit or shape the interview, although that clearly happens. The point is not to challenge the integrity of information officers, although, like reporters, some are better at what they do than are others. The point is that the presence of an institutional representative changes the interview. And we owe it to out readers to conduct interviews without that presence whenever possible.
Mr Raeburn seemed to make an effort to be exquisitely polite, but still managed to affirm that the public relations person in the room is a real and important phenomenon in reporting about health care.
This reinforces the notion that monitoring of interviews with journalists by public relations people is common practice, but one heretofore not discussed publicly.  It seems obvious that the point of this practice was to keep the interviewee on message, and to restrain any discussion that might not fit with the public relations persons' bosses interests.

If we did not know about the practice of keeping a public relations person in the room for interviews with people working for the government, it seems likely that we also did not know about similar practices affecting interviews with people in other kinds of health care organizations, e.g., for-profit corporations, and not-for-profit organizations.

We have frequently discussed the "anechoic effect," how important cases, stories, and data about the negative effects of concentration and abuse of power in health care, and about ill-informed, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted, or even corrupt leadership of health care organizations, and the unaccountable, unrepresentative, opaque, and often unethical governance that enables it are often just not discussed, and when discussed, produce few echoes.  Now we see another mechanism that maintains this effect.  Large health care organizations deploy substantial money and personnel to market their products and massage their messages.  These people apparently use a variety of tactics to control the flow of information to journalists.  While journalists seem to be provide much more information about the problems in health care we discuss on Health Care Renewal than professional and academic publications and meetings, we now see one more mechanism that has impeded them from doing so openly and fully.

In my humble opinion, disclosing that interviews were monitored by public relations personnel is one small, but important step in beginning free enquiry into what has gone wrong with health care.  Bravo to the people who have stood up for it. 


Anonymous said...

Information control:spies or information officers? Will the interviewee lose one's job by saying the truth?

Unknown said...

As a medical investigative journalist, I've been complaining about this problem for years. I was surprised when some fellow journalists indicated that a "chaperoned interview" (as we call them) would be any less open than an unchaperoned interview since "everyone, including their bosses, will see what they say anyway."

What that ignores is that even when an interviewee is reluctant to say something publicly or in front of a chaperone, they might be willing to gives leads to other sources for important stories that we might otherwise not be able to access.

Kudos to MedPage Today and HCR for the story; I'm going to try to get all the outlets i write for to do the same - and i hope other journalists will also follow suit.

Jeanne Lenzer

Unknown said...

Perhaps my experience isn't typical, but most of the times when I've had a PR person listening/sitting in, it's been for an interview with the boss, or with a high-level executive. They were not, by any means, in a position of power, but as advisers, and filling the blanks (or taking notes of questions the boss couldn't answer).

That doesn't mean the environment isn't changed by the PR person being there, but it's a VERY big difference if an underling is being interviewed, or a boss. Even with underlings, though, does anyone really think people can speak "freely" in a way that goes against their employer?

The one situation in which I'd say special notations are warranted is when one is interviewing patients or others who are not under the entity's authority, but could be influenced by the PR person's presence. I'd also note it if I felt an interview was being compromised by the PR person, but I can't think of a single case where I felt someone bit their tongue because of the PR person, but would've spilled the beans or made pointed comments without them.

I still prefer unchaperoned interviews, but having worked in PR as well, I know a lot of times, PR people are there for support, nothing more. The MedPage policy demonizes what is usually a harmless practice.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Marion, thanks for your observations.

To me, though, it seems that when the boss is interviewed with the PR person present, the PR person may also serve to fix things if the boss inadvertently says something frank and honest that contradicts the "party line." Even if it is the boss' own "party line," this role still maintains the anechoic effect.