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Press Secretaries Strike Back 

Jeremy Alford hears from Louisiana press secretaries after a report that the state spent $5 million on public information officers last year

Last week, we reported Louisiana's statewide departments and cabinet agencies will spend more than $4.4 million this year to underwrite the salaries of 72 press secretaries and media professionals ("On the Record," May 15). Another $640,000 will be spent on their related operations. Some of those mentioned in the story are pushing back.

  Sam Irwin, a freelance writer and photographer who is the press secretary for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said it exemplified a journalist "arriving for an interview with their story already written," borrowing a line from last week's report.

  In particular, Irwin had a beef with a section of the story that cited ways press teams are navigating around the mainstream media to get their messages out. Here's the rub, as he saw it: "The Department of Agriculture will put up roughly $100,000 publishing what it calls 'Market Bulletins.'" Irwin argued that 13,000 subscribers pay $10 a year for the publication to be printed and mailed to them. In that respect, it should have been noted in the report that the supporting dollars are self-generated. He also said that most of the Marketing Bulletin is made up of free classified ads for cattle, tractors and other agricultural needs.

  However, the first two pages of the 112-year-old newsletter usually are set aside for stories and press releases containing plenty of quotes from Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain. The pages are his vehicle to get out a message without having to deal with reporters. If anything, it shows the department is proactive in promoting itself.

  Bob Johannessen, former communications director for the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), said, "Alford does not address how he or other reporters would be able to effectively cover state government without the assistance of a (public information officer, or PIO)."

  This is true. It goes without saying that PIOs and press secretaries are important to this thing we journalists do. It would be difficult without them — sometimes; it just depends on the story. But a second reason PIOs are important: They're the ones who pass along off-the-record stories for their bosses and tip off reporters to big scoops.

  On more than one occasion they've saved me on deadline. I've also been led on by a few and provided with inaccurate information. There's the bad and the good, mostly the latter. But, as we noted in last week's story, "a department head without a flack nowadays is like a 4-year-old on the beach without sunscreen."

  Speaking of DHH, its initial reply to our public records request for media-related salaries produced the names of two people making salaries totaling $100,484. The accuracy of that list, however, has come into question. In a follow-up request, the department's attorney said Tom Gasparoli, who makes $71,000 as DHH media and communications director as well as press secretary for the DHH secretary, was mistakenly left off the list. There's also Kristen M. Sunde, who was not on the list, though she recently helped coordinate a story for Gambit and even sat in on a telephone interview with a DHH deputy secretary. Sunde held a title connected to the "Bureau of Media and Communications." A PIO for the department said Sunde filled that role only temporarily as new hands were brought on board.

  It's an interesting twist. While many media professionals wanted to make sure it was known that they do much more than handle press requests, this was an example of someone being pulled into the fray who typically never talks to journalists.

  Another press secretary from a bygone era of Louisiana politics offered these words on the classic relationship between hack and flack: "We may not always like the story you're doing, but in the end we respect that you're doing it." Without question, that works the other way around, too. At least on good days.

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him at Jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

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