Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Contradictory Messaging Kills a Message

We always counsel our clients that consistency when sharing a message is key. The American public has a very short attention span and only the very few can manage to authentically hold opposing views about an issue simultaneously. Sarah Palin's promise for a new era of government openness as the reform governor of Alaska is a great example of this to learn from. Palin's platform started to crack even before Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign built a wall of protectiveness around her.

Palin was elected nearly two years ago with splashy moves like publishing the state spending checkbook online. She kept a campaign pledge to allow the public to view online communications between state officials and potential bidders on a major gas pipeline, a contrast to her predecessor.

But her administration has claimed broad exceptions to Alaska's freedom of information rules to keep government e-mails secret, and it's shown reluctance to disclose documents about sensitive topics, ranging from polar bears to policy issues. And her state's online checkbook is limited in its detail.

Disclosures about private e-mail accounts used by Palin and her top aides have raised questions about whether they were trying to evade disclosure under the state's public records law. Her aides have denied this.

Alaska's attorney general, appointed by Palin, determined in August that any personal communications on state-reimbursed cell phones and BlackBerrys can be kept secret under the Public Records Act. That could sweep information from public view if it were deemed personal, although the attorney general said state officials or courts still could review the records as needed.

For citizens or journalists seeking public records in Alaska, the government generally must provide copies of records upon request within 10 days. The Associated Press has received some documents it sought in as little as one day.

But when the AP asked for documents about nursing homes last June, state officials initially demanded $5,000 in fees. The fee was only waived three months later and the request satisfied after the AP printed a story on how state officials had effectively turned over questions about Palin's record to members of the McCain political campaign.

Alaska now charges $960 per e-mail account for searches, plus additional fees for copying.

Like Palin, McCain has promised to set new standards for transparency and accountability. Before becoming governor, Palin resigned from a state oil and gas board where she said confidentiality rules prohibited her from publicly discussing ethics problems she encountered and reported internally.

Now Palin is dogged by accusations of stonewalling in a home-state investigation into whether she pressured officials to fire her former brother-in-law, a state trooper. After initially promising to cooperate, Palin challenged the lawmakers' impartiality. The results of that investigation are expected to be made public as early as Friday.

"As soon as the heat comes on, the openness and transparency goes away," said Anchorage Daily News editorial page editor Matt Zencey.

Former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel once fled an elevator to avoid a reporter's questions, but Palin invited Bob Tkacz, a business freelance reporter who covers Alaska government, for a chat when he staked her out this summer. That didn't mean she spilled the scoops.

"She's a nice lady," he said, "but when she doesn't want to say something it's very hard to get anything out of her."

Talking about one thing and demonstrating another doesn't wash in our non-traditional consumer-generated journalism world. Contradiction cancels out a message and leaves viewers and readers confused and suspicious. Attorneys need to learn this lesson so they don't find themselves saying "No comment" to journalists and then complaining they didn't get "fair and balanced" media coverage.


AP National Writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this report.

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