When National Security Is On The Line, How Do You Ethically Handle Public Relations? – Robert Johnson

Joining me this week is Robert Johnson. He is a PR Rebel, the Strategic Communications Officer for RIESTER Public Affairs, and the host of the PR Nation Podcast. He discusses a number of important issues, including:

  • When national security is on the line how to you handle public relations ethically?
  • The state of truth today
  • Why PR pros should take a different approach when a reporter asks you about confidential information

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I am a Partner in a public affairs shop in Washington, DC. It’s called RIESTER Public Affairs, but I’ve done just a little bit of everything – 41 years of PR, media, political campaign, and policy experience. I actually started my career as a disc jockey on the radio playing 45s, if people remember those, in 1980, with a small AM station in Safford, Arizona. I was 15. And I haven’t really looked back. I’ve led communications for one president, two governors, two members of Congress, and consulted lots of mayors and local elected officials.

After 9/11, I came to Washington for the second time. I had already been a press secretary on Capitol Hill. That second time I came to head communications for the Transportation Security Administration, after the terror attacks.

I have wrangled with national and local media all over the world. I’m a podcaster, a teacher, an innovator who loves playing around with wires and plugs. Radio Shack was my favorite place for a long time. If it has wires, I’m your guy.

Thinking back over those 41 years, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

Well, there were a lot, but I would say probably managing communications after 9/11 for TSA. Americans wanted to know what their government was doing with regard to transportation security, mostly related to aviation. It was my job as the head of that office to explain it to them without giving up Secret or Top Secret information. There was a big worry in the country at that time that there would be another attack and that it would be just as bad if not worse. How did we keep the economy going, which transportation’s a big piece of that, without risking some future attack?

So, my job often was to find a way to inform the media and thus the public about what we were doing without jeopardizing National Security. The media never really got all that they wanted, but they got a lot more than the TSA people wanted to give them because I was acting on their behalf, trying to balance two very different and competing interests.

How do you tell the truth when National Security could be compromised, should you go too far with it?

When you’re talking about balancing truth, privacy and security, how do you recommend communicators talk to the C-suite to help them understand the need to share more information than they may be comfortable sharing?

I think it has to do with convincing them the need to not only communicate something, but the possibility of doing it without giving up too much. I’ve spent a lot of time interfacing with people who had been admirals of the Pacific fleet, commanders of all the tanks in Europe and all of the B-52 bombers in the Western hemisphere. I mean, there were a lot of people leaving very, very high-ranking military jobs to come into the aviation security platform to help secure the homeland.

And so, you can imagine they all had a very strong opinion of what should be done. They all had been in charge. So, here is this kid, compared to them I was 36 or 37 years old, telling them we need to show the media how we’re going to train pilots to carry firearms on an airplane because we spent decades trying to get guns out of airplanes, now we’re putting them in. We’re allowing it. We’re encouraging pilots to get trained.

It took me four months to convince the front office and the people involved in the training program in Georgia that we could develop a session with the national media assembled to give them some sense for what we were doing. We had to scrub the curriculum. We had to work with the participants and that first class of pilots – for everyone wanted to see the first class of pilots who volunteered. Then ultimately, I had to deliver. I had to show them through the coverage, which is a little scary because you don’t control what the media does. I had to show the people that I had talked into doing this, that we could do it without giving anything away.

So, you put a little bit of your credibility on the line. You go in and you say, “I can get this done, but you have to let me do it the way I tell you to do it. I will work with you. If there’s something that you think Osama Bin Laden is going to use against us, you tell me. We’ll find a way to get that out of the program, but in the end, we have to give them something. We can’t leave them all at the front gate.”

It was a long process and I had great staff around me. We just worked really hard on it. We worked down in Georgia, we went there a few times to sit down and walk through it all. We went early before all of the nation’s and the world’s media showed up at the door to see this. We organized it, we managed it very tightly, and in the end, the coverage was awesome.

We created a program out of that, that I think they still use to some extent to this day because they continue to train pilots to carry weapons in the cockpit. And all of that training is to some degree open to the media. Not all of it, there are some tactics that we don’t want any adversaries to know about because that would help them find a way to breach the cockpit, but there are some things you can show that aren’t going to really give anything away. We found a way to split that issue right down the middle. We walked a tightrope from day one to the end, but we delivered it. That I think is fairly critical, whether you’re talking to someone at a corporation or someone in a government agency that is essentially in the middle of the biggest issue then of our lifetime.

One of the other challenges I think you had at the TSA was how do you take that complex web of information and simplify it? How do you make sure you’re giving enough information without oversimplifying?

It’s different with every situation. It’s hard to give a one size fits all answer to that question. It was easy in that case because the people we were working with who were not communicators didn’t want to give the media anything. They just wanted to say no comment to everything. When I took over that office, that’s what they were doing, and they were wondering why their media program was so bad. The media was attacking them all day long because they had nothing to eat. They were hungry, nobody was giving them anything. So, what we did is we just went through each program and we rolled out everything during that time. We were adding 5,000 screeners to the payroll every week. We were adding dozens and dozens of airports to the program every week. We were rolling out 100% checked bags, screening. For people who are old enough to remember those days, the bags weren’t really being checked before that.

And then we had to put in a program that ruined the award-winning lobbies for the airports and made them angry and slowed down the boarding process, and caused everybody to have to leave their pocket knife at home. The whole thing really made everyone upset despite what we saw on TV live on 9/11. So, we just went through very calmly and tried to find ways to tell good stories. And we knew that we were going to have to prove ourselves over and over and over again. So, we took baby steps, we didn’t try to do the big stuff first. The guns in the cockpit was not until much later in our program.

So, it was a little easier than if that were the first thing we would do. If you’re trying to get people in your organization to come along with you, to help you tell stories that can benefit your audiences and your organization, I would say start small. Get some credibility or bolster what you already have, and just do it by proving it. Succeed through delivering. Over time, as people start to trust you more and more, it will be easier for you to do what you need to do when it gets really tough.

Thinking beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing is some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Well, I think the big one is telling the truth, and I know we’ve talked about that a little bit already, but the line is really blurred today. People stretch, bend, blindfold the truth, they submit it as the truth, when really, it’s just opinion. Opinion has taken over.

I’m old enough to remember the days when the opinions in the media world were limited to certain parts of the broadcast or only two pages of the newspaper. Now, it’s all the way across the spectrum. So, I think our biggest ethical challenge is making sure that we are attuned to the truth, that we know how to wash all of the opinion out of it, and that we don’t necessarily accept that any media outlet is free from that problem.

I see this problem in every media outlet in America that we deal with, the celebrity journalist has taken over, everybody needs to get clicks and likes and views and shares on their social media channels. They have a tote board in the Washington Post newsroom where reporters can see how their stories are playing during the day with audiences. How does that benefit journalism? I think it sends it in the wrong direction, frankly. So, for all of us as communicators, the truth’s issue is the big one. It shouldn’t be good enough for people to just assign a truth telling label to someone who screams the loudest. And I don’t care what issue they’re on, but that’s where we are today.

If you talk enough about something and you say it like you mean it, the media, more often than not, is going to take that. And if they agree with you, they will adopt it as the truth, if they don’t, then they beat you over the head with it. It’s just a really tough environment to operate in, especially if you are operating in some of these key issues that are front and center right now, like public health and equity. Some of these things you’ve really got to pay attention to that center line and you have to make sure that everything you say can be backed up, can be referenced is the truth.

I say we’re entering the disinformation age. How do you recommend brands fight back and counteract people that are spreading misinformation and disinformation?

I think you have to stay calm. I went to Grand Rapids right before the pandemic hit and spoke to the PRSA group up there. We talked about CSR and I suggested then that CSR be treated like a political exercise because so many companies are being forced to take positions when they may or may not want to. It may or may not really be necessary for them to weigh in on an issue when it might hurt their business overall, despite being led to believe it’s better for their business. My advice there was to stay calm, do your homework when there is no crisis, make sure you know who your audiences really are and what they really want from you, and then build a plan around it.

How does that fit into the truth? Well, it helps you understand what the truth is. When a mob shows up at your door, demanding you take a position on something that maybe you weren’t going to take a position on, maybe you didn’t even know you needed to take a position on, maybe you don’t need to take a position on it, that’s how it affects the truth. Because in those times when things are tough, when the crisis is calling, you need to know what your situation is and how you’re going to deal with it. Whether that’s coming from the media, from a third-party group, from some organization that’s just trying to build a long list of companies that “agree with them on something,” regardless of the politics, regardless of the issue, you need to know what the truth is so that you can respond to it appropriately and get through it.

That is outstanding advice. Thinking about advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were doing?

Always be willing to tell a reporter that you know the answer, but can’t give it, A lot of people try to convince a reporter when getting a tough question that they don’t know the answer. The reporter is at least smart enough to know that you probably do.

I’ve used that a lot in Washington, DC. It’s a tough place to answer reporter questions. At that TSA job, I would walk out of a Congressional hearing room. My boss, who was the former four-star admiral and Commandant of the Coast Guard called out of retirement by President Bush to head TSA, didn’t like dealing with the media. He was an awesome guy, but he hated dealing with the media. He’s like, “Johnson, you go out and deal with it.” I’m like, “Yes, sir. I’ll go take care of it.”

So, he’d go out the back door, back to the office, and I would go out the front door of the hearing room after the Republicans had finished kicking our butts all over town for five hours, and I would give a two-hour news conference every time. Sometimes there’d be 200 reporters there. I’m surrounded by media. I couldn’t even see the staff because the media was eight or 10 deep in all directions. And one of the best things that helped me get through that, they knew I knew what was going on so I couldn’t play dumb, otherwise it would make me look stupid and my credibility would be shot, and I wouldn’t be able to help the organization, wouldn’t be able to help them. I’d be gone, like a lot of other people have been chewed up and spit out in this town the last couple of years.

So, I started telling them, you know what? I do know the answer to that question, but I can’t tell you right now. If I can, I will, when the time is right. You got to respect that I’m telling you the truth. I know, but I can’t say. And I think you could apply that in just about any case. Reporters are still going to be grumpy. They’re still going to want that answer now because they don’t ever like to wait. I was a journalist at one point, I didn’t like waiting. Didn’t like being told to wait. Didn’t like being told no. But I was never told I know the answer, I just can’t share it. I use that over and over and over again in DC and live to tell about it.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of

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