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FBI to press: How are we doing?

February 13, 2013

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s press office has embarked on a bit of customer satisfaction research: The department is asking journalists to rate its performance during the hostage standoff in Alabama that ended last week.

It is a rare glint of cooperative spirit in the traditionally contentious relationship between journalists and public relations specialists.

A public affairs officer sent journalists an online survey asking them to say whether the information the FBI gave them during the early days of the standoff was “sufficient” – enough to do their jobs – or whether it was too little.

The survey also asked journalists to put their overall experience with the FBI’s press officers into categories such as “extremely helpful” or “not helpful at all.”

The FBI initially said the survey was not for publication, but then agreed to let Reuters write about it.

“This is impressive – I’ve never head of the FBI asking about our approval for anything,” said John Dinges, a former managing editor at NPR News who is now a journalism professor at Columbia University.

Journalists covering situations like the Alabama standoff, in which a man in Midland City kidnapped a 5-year old boy and spent nearly a week holding him in an underground bunker, aren’t used to that sort of follow-up. More familiar are the hours spent at police lines carefully watching officers at work and shouting mostly unanswered questions at them every time something appears to be changing about the situation. There are press conferences, but they’re never revealing enough to relieve reporters from the police tape vigil.

As it turns out, this isn’t the first time the FBI has asked for feedback. The public affairs department sent out surveys last May at the conclusion of a manhunt for the fugitive Adam Mayes, which spanned Tennessee and Mississippi.

“It gives us the chance to look introspectively to see how we can be more effective communicators in the future,” said Special Agent J. Jason Pack, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington.

So far, 20 journalists have responded.

“There is always a demand for more information and ways for us to do that, but many took time to point out things that worked well too.”   said Paul Bresson, the unit chief for the FBI’s national press office.

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