PIO Accountability

There’s an extremely interesting series of articles on BoingBoing.net from Cory Doctorow and journalist Heather Brooke (one of the posts is an excerpt of her book, The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy) about anonymity, specifically for PR folks, this week. The posts in question are as follows:

(For my tl;dr [too long; didn’t read] friends, the above posts are essentially complaints about PR folks in the UK and how they, acting as duly appointed and approved spokespeople for their organization, agency, official or corporation, refuse to be named in stories. “A source close to the investigation,” and, “well-placed sources,” and, “someone from the election camp,” and, “an official speaking off-the-record” are all examples of how this plays out. Mr. Doctorow and Ms. Brooke say the practice allows officials and representatives to soil the official record, potentially forcing the media to look left while they move right, so to speak. One tragic example quoted is the shooting of an unarmed man in east London in 2006, and unsourced rumors that came out about the man after the shooting, none of which were true, but could’ve been used to justify the shooting.)

Now, as a student of the art of the PIO, I found these posts to be extremely interesting. And they expose my relative new-ness in the field. So I lean on you, my friends, to help hash things out. I know that these posts are very focused on the British press and government (hi, friends from Walsall!), but I also know that I’ve been in papers here in the US as a “spokesperson.” Boy, does this lead me to questions.

How prevalent is this practice? Why do we do it? Are the reasons that corporate folks do this (some examples are in the posts) different than why government communicators do it? Are Mr. Doctorow’s and Ms. Brooke’s complaints valid? Should we, as communicators, be named when speaking as official sources of approved information?

Here’s my best stab at those answers. First, we speak for our organizations. It isn’t me that’s giving this update, it’s the Health Department, or 10 Downing Street, or BP. By tying my name to this report, the next guy that comes up here to talk with you has to re-establish credit with the media and public. Speak with one voice and all that.

Second, we are PIOs who live in reality. When things go sideways, it’s OUR names in the paper, and when the mob comes looking for someone–right or wrong–again, it’s OUR names in the paper. (A great example is BP’s Neil Chapman.) In reality, we catch the flack when operations fail. Sure, some folks do it to be shady, and we all suffer for that.

Neither of those answers lead to an answer, though. They’re good arguments for why we should be allowed to be anonymized, but I don’t know if they’ve got the juice to fulfill the absolute need (and critical goal) of 100% transparency. So I ask you, dear reader, what are your thoughts?