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How to survive in a negative media spotlight

Every government agency has been there — under the media spotlight. Yes the GSA conference, Secret Service., BP oil spill. We can go on, right? Feds are in the news a lot these days — but it’s rarely the good kind of press.

More often than not, feds are making the front page for incidents of waste, fraud and abuse. So how do you lead through the negative press?

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program some tips for leading in tough times.



Tom’s 9 Bad Headline Crushing Mantras:

  1. Remember that you work in a fishbowl. Anything you say or do on the job might become public. Government transparency includes not only the possibility that a Freedom of Information Act request might be filed, but it also speaks to a public service value that encourages information sharing. Be judicious and think before you act or speak.
  2. Don’t think what’s on social media like Facebook and Twitter is only shared with your friends. It’s not always just what you say or do in the workplace that can get you in trouble. One fed I know has likened leading in government to being the star of a reality show. The pictures of a certain General Services Administration employee posing in a hot tub in Las Vegas provide an all-too graphic reminder that everything online can become public eventually.
  3. Seek to identify and prevent problems from occurring in the first place. It’s almost always easier to stop something bad from happening — especially if it involves fraud, waste, or abuse — than it is to clean up the mess after it’s happened.
  4. Avoid engaging in partisan political activities. Passion around the election will undoubtedly run high this summer and fall, but most federal leaders know that they need to check their political views at the office door. Even outside the office, there are limitations on what you can do. For example, you may not host a political fundraiser. If you need any reminders, check out the resources from the Office of Special Counsel.
  5. Treat your colleagues, customers and employees fairly and with respect. Whether you are interacting with your employees, your partners or members of the public, don’t give anyone preferential treatment. Merit and ethics are the rule in the public sector. The Office of Government Ethics has a whole set of ideas for avoiding anything that appears unethical.
  6. Don’t bully the messenger or hide problems when they arise. You may not be the one surfacing allegations of waste, fraud, abuse or corruption, but you may have responsibility for managing someone who’s raised a red flag. Too often whistleblowers are treated like the crazy cousin no one talks about. If you need to know how to handle the situation, I’ll once again point you to the Office of Special Counsel. But in general, don’t seek to sweep serious problems under the rug. The cover-up can turn out to be worse for you than the initial offense.
  7. Ignore individual differences that are not related to a person’s ability to get the job done. It’s illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Yet, allegations of discrimination seem to still occur. Check out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for more information.
  8. Don’t profit from actions taken or knowledge gained in your job. Wall Street may have problems with insider-trading, but federal managers run the same risk given that they have access to sensitive information in any number of different areas. The Office of Government Ethics has some useful information on this topic and on how to avoid financial conflicts of interest.
  9. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. This applies as much to making commitments to outside organization as it does to employees. Nothing hurts credibility more or runs the risk of some sort of legal action like making a promise you are unable to keep or which you do not intend to keep.

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Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Good list about media. I would reiterate that the cover up may supercede the crime (ie. Watergate, etc.). Therefore, “Hang a latern on it” as commentator Chris Matthews advises in his book “Hard Ball.” In other words get all the negative info out early and respond to all media questions asap. This will help from having a one or two-day story become a week-long story (or longer) due to the drip, drip, drip of agency info trickling out over time or reporters’ digging it up. So get the bad info out early, respond to all questions, and then move on to the next media crisis awaiting you.

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