The Voice On The Line

Now here’s an unusual one. Those of you with an ear to the political ground have probably already heard of this, and those of you in the corporate world should know about similar cases. I’m talking about the prank phone call: someone calling someone in power, while pretending to be someone the callee is friendly with. The banter, at least in those calls released, is friendly—almost back-slappingly so—and usually touches on a hot point issue in a way that the callee would rather not be released. A few days later, the callee usually releases a statement that their words were taken out of context or something similar.

Today’s media landscape puts a unique spin on these tactics. Namely, is the call a prank like I described it, or is it some new form of guerilla journalism? Is this the realm of bloggers (gasp!), or will it become part of the mass media’s toolbox? Steven Silvers, at the link above, talks about this:

We’ll be hearing about this for months, maybe years. Was it a prank call or guerilla journalism? Does the end – important insight into an elected leader’s intentions and personality – justify the means? Is there even such a thing as ethics in journalism when the public interest is at stake? Is transparency the only thing that matters? Is media accountable like politicians should be?

All perfectly reasonable questions. But, Mr. Silver (and myself) feel that its pointless to spend much time thinking about them. Due to the success of the tactic, it would be malfeasance to not expect it to happen again. We can debate the ethicality of the tactic all we want, but even if it ever gets in front of a judge the damage will already have been done. What to do? I argue there are two things your PIO or PR Department should do. And be sure to note that I wholeheartedly support the former, though think the latter is the safe way to conduct business.

First, it is your job as PIO to be party to the discussions around operations. Listen for rationale. Why are we doing it this way? If it’s unsavory, say so. You’re ultimately the one charged with defending the practice and protecting your organization, and you can’t rightly do that without understanding everything that you’ll be asked about. Ultimately, we should all strive to work for organizations and agencies that we can be proud of.

Second, use your common sense. If David Koch calls out of the blue to speak with Governor, make sure it’s actually him. Check your caller ID, ask to call them back, vet the person on the phone. And do this even if everything you’ve got going on is above-board: it’s just good practice! The inconvenience experienced by your caller, if they’re real, totally outweighs the threat of putting your organization’s dirty laundry out to dry.

I know we’ve got a lot of emergency response readers, so let me place this concern into your court as well. If a call comes in during a response from a person claiming to be the Mayor, do they get automatic access to the IC? What about if there are calls from the media questioning the nature and conduct of your response? (Especially if the questions are surrounding rationing response. Are you prepared to say why you’re allocating resources in one way but not another, candidly?)