HHS releases guidelines for handling media requests

Updated June 8, 2012

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has adopted a set of guidelines on how it will provide information to the media. The guidelines reaffirm that employees’ contacts with the media must be cleared by a public affairs office, but call on media officials to respond promptly and accurately.

AHCJ had no part in writing the guidelines but had pushed for a media policy that would promote consistency among all HHS agencies and allow reporters to know the ground rules.

Although the guidelines are in force, Richard Sorian, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, called them a “living document” and said he welcomed feedback.

AHCJ members are encouraged to read the six-page document and share their thoughts with Irene Wielawski, Right to Know Committee chair.hhs-media-guidelines

Among the key features are:

  • An emphasis on timely response and respect for reporters’ deadlines

  • Putting bloggers on equal footing with mainstream journalists

  • Encouraging, but not requiring, HHS employees to consent to interviews

  • Requiring that employees arrange such interviews through media offices

  • Allowing employees who speak at conferences or other public events to answer reporters’ questions at that time

  • Specifying that “media interviews should be on-the-record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance.”

Although employees are required to arrange their contacts with the media through the public affairs offices, they do not need to seek approval for scientific, technical or policy articles or commentaries written for peer-reviewed journals.

The guidelines also extend to all HHS agencies the policy on embargoes recently adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. That policy permits reporters to share embargoed materials with sources, provided the sources promise to honor the embargo.

The guidelines do not state whether a media representative must or should listen in on interviews with HHS employees. They also do not address whether reporters from large and small media outlets should be treated equally.

Sorian released the new guidelines Wednesday, after the second quarterly phone conversation between AHCJ and HHS public affairs officers. Freyer and AHCJ President Charles Ornstein spoke with Sorian and others as part of a continuing effort to improve HHS responsiveness to reporters’ requests for information.

Asked whether reporters would ever be allowed to contact and interview federal employees on their own, Sorian said that HHS has no plans to change the policy requiring interview requests to be cleared by a public affairs office. But he emphasized that public affairs officers are supposed to be helpful and should not “shape the interview.” If a reporter feels that press officer has been heavy handed, “we definitely want to hear about that,” he said. Sorian can be reached at