Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Agency Spokesperson: Connecting Public Administration and the Media

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Agency Spokesperson: Connecting Public Administration and the Media

Article excerpt


Spokespersons for administrative agencies are the focal point for connecting public administration and the media. However, while significant attention has been paid to spokespersons for elected officials, those for administrative agencies have received less attention. This article reviews the literature on spokespersonship, presents the results of a survey of the chief public information officers in local government agencies, and compares the results to an identical survey of their counterparts in federal agencies. It concludes that spokespersons for all government agencies are becoming increasingly important in public administration due to the rise of the role of the media in modern society.


Public administrators have an obligation to the public due to the democratic context within which they operate (Kirlin, 1996; King et al., 1998). As such, public reporting, external communication and publicity to accomplish democratic accountability are inherent in the activities of government agencies and public managers (Viteritti, 1997; Falcone and Adrian, 1997), yet controversial nonetheless (Yarwood and Enis, 1992, 1988). While all agency leaders bear this responsibility (Simon, 1997:294; Selznick, 1957: 7), the obligations largely falls on the specialized staff that has emerged as a sub-profession in public administration and deals routinely with the news media. This article examines the largely unexplored world of spokespersons for local government agencies.

How does the world look to these spokespersons? In both the academic and practitioner literature, one finds a frequently recurring theme regarding the issues of 'belongingness' of the spokesperson who has been variously described as mediator (Dunwoody and Ryan, 1983), existing on the margin between journalist and publicist (Swartz, 1983), straddling the boundary of the agency and the press (Fletcher and Soucy, 1983:93), and in an administrative noman's land not quite trusted by either the public or the agency (Moss, 1968:30). Others have described them as stepchildren of the bureaucracy (Cuttlip, 1968:30), intermediaries (Nimmo, 1964:24-25) in the bureaucracy but not of it (Hess, 1984:37), and honest brokers of information even if their superiors do not appreciate their efforts (Wolfson, 1985:84).

The above suggests that, due to their responsibilities, spokespersons are in a unique position in government agencies. For example, how do they view the activities occurring within their own agency and the decisions of their agency director? At the other end of their professional interactions, how do they assess the work of the journalists who cover their agency? A survey of spokespersons in municipal, county, and special district government agencies in Wisconsin was conducted to explore these perspectives.


Waldo (1992:xi) described communication "as a crucial aspect of government." Notwithstanding the new and emerging communication technologies, the main channel for external communication by public agencies is through the news media (Goddard and Riback, 1998:Chapter 19). The government professional at the nexus of a public agency and the news media in its spokesperson or public information officer (PIO). According to Grunig (1997:242), they "plan and execute communication for the entire organization or help parts of the organization to communicate" by managing messages into and out of the public agency.

Generally, the literature focuses on spokespersons for elected officials, especially presidents (Kurtz, 1999; Nelsen, 1998; Giobbe, 1996; Spragens, 1980; Farrar, 1989). There are some studies on spokespersons for governors (Council of State Governments, 1961; Hobart, 1958), mayors (Westerhof, 1974), and Canadian prime ministers (Levine, 1993). There is also a substantial amount of first-- person accounts of spokespersons for elected officials, especially those in the White House. …

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