A Pittsburgh tragedy has raised some interesting questions about the interactions between the media and public agencies, and how public relations staff should behave when put in an adversarial relationship with reporters.
A woman named Ka'Sandra Wade was shot to death by her boyfriend before he killed himself. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette learned that police officers had earlier investigated a 911 call made by Wade, but left her home after her boyfriend told them everything was fine. The police department, in response to questions emailed about this 911 call by Post-Gazette reporters, sent a press release to all local media outlets which included a verbatim copy of the reporters' email. In a subsequent editorial, the newspaper framed for the public the police department's offense:
Arthur Yann, a vice president of the Public Relations Society of America, referred details of the case to his association's ethics committee. The panel called the city police's PR approach "ill-advised" and a "violation of an unwritten custom of journalism."
The Newspaper Guild, which represents Post-Gazette staffers, said this "was not just an attempt to ruin a 'scoop' for two reporters, it was an attempt to derail any communication between reporters and police beyond what officials offer at staged news conferences." The Guild said the department wanted "to punish and intimidate reporters who dared to demand answers to important questions. ..."
That is precisely the problem. Some members of the public in a media-hostile age may dismiss this as special pleading. But once a government agency arrogantly decides to punish perceived enemies, reporters from any news organization become candidates for the same treatment -- the Post-Gazette one day, WPXI the next, with the ultimate victim the public's right to know. To dismiss this as unimportant is to suggest that a young woman's life was unimportant; it is to suggest that the people of Pittsburgh don't deserve real answers about public safety, police performance and what their tax dollars are buying. (link)
One caveat before we discuss who is right, and who is wrong, from a PR standpoint: A government agency has an obligation to the news media and the public (the former being a surrogate for the latter) that many of our organizations do not. (Though I would argue that we all have an obligation to treat the public, as individuals and in the collective, in an ethical manner). But many of us do work in industries that are covered aggressively by media outlets in competition with one another. So this discussion matters.
I always assume that any email I send in a professional setting can be forwarded without my knowledge and consent. But assuming a thing can happen does not make that thing right. I would never forward a reporter's email to a competing news outlet without that reporter's knowledge and consent. It betrays an implicit trust that exists between journalists and public information officers, and it's also rather stupid; that reporter will never trust me, or by extension, my organization, ever again. Similarly, if a friend sends me an email and assumes confidentiality, I'm a jerk if I violate that confidentiality, whether or not they knew it was possible.
Nonetheless, the police department was under no obligation to keep the Post-Gazette's scoop under wraps. In fact, once the department realized that it would soon be public knowledge that its officers failed to prevent a murder, it was smart for the department to come clean with everyone. It would have been even wiser to have revealed this information even before it came to the attention of any media outlets. Now one has to wonder whether the incident is only under investigation because it was outed by reporters.
As to the Post-Gazette's assertion that the police department's intention was to intimidate reporters, well, it's hard to avoid that conclusion. Now every reporter who wants to communicate in email with the police department has to wonder where their email will end up, and whether it is worth asking tough questions at all.