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Nancy Smith

Swimming With Sharks: Flacks and Facts in Tallahassee

April 24, 2011 - 6:00pm

In Tallahassee, you cant throw out a line without hooking a flack. The water is black with 'em.

The state lists them in all kinds of ways as press secretaries, public information specialists, communications directors/coordinators/assistants, you name it. Titles boggle the mind. But the truth is, flacks feeding at the public trough actually outnumber legislators. They did before the new governor was sworn in, they do now.

By my count there are 189 flacks plying the sometimes murky water in state offices and agencies at the capital -- and that's probably a hugely conservative number. Imagine how many more there are hiding under unflack-like, euphemistic titles such as management assistant or administrative liaison or operations consultant. And it doesn't count the ones who work for the 160 individual legislators.

Ordinarily, if state departments and agencies wanted to bring in a bloat of taxpayer-funded manpower to help the press and public separate fact from bullcrackers, I would be the first to stand and cheer. That's not pork, I would argue, it's more opportunity for transparency. But, no. Not here. Not these days.

And this is my point: Today's flacks don't necessarily smooth the path to the truth. They run interference for the boss. They obstruct. And they're darn good at it. If the boss doesn't want you to know, you won't. They'll yank you in circles so fast, you'll feel like you've been strapped into a tilt-a-whirl on a fairground's midway.

It used to be that the primary functions of a flack were 1) to sweep up the stinky messes their politician-employers created by shooting from the lip, or 2) to speak for bosses who would rather slink out a back door than confront a constituent or a reporter. Nowadays flacks don't sweep, they ignore;and more often than not, they're right behind their bosses slinking out that back door.

Another thing. It used to be that most of them -- and, by the way, they like to be called "communications professionals" -- came from newspapers' newsrooms. Not anymore. Most of today's flacks aren't former reporters. And the ones who are seem to view flackery as a place of retirement, akin to moving to a mobile home park in Sarasota. They embrace their new, higher paid profession as the next best thing to not working, staying blissfully ignorant of anything that might be useful to people.

And then there's the law. I know flacks at the Capitol who didn't know until the 2011 session started that there were such things as sunshine laws, let alone what they are and where to find them.

I apologize for generalizing so shamelessly here. There are some very outstanding flacks in Tallahassee, I know that. Some of these folks have been around state government since the Earth cooled -- or so it seems. Governors and their political cronies came and went. But these folks stayed on, pillars of institutional wisdom. These are the ones who day after day provide facts with ease and precision, who deal swiftly with the questions they're asked, who return calls in a timely manner, who don't do their job by playing favorites among the media.

They know who they are; we all do.

But, looking at a jolting list of information on communications positions from the Department of Management Services, it would come as no great surprise to me if the next big investigation and susequent Florida government weed-out came crashing down on Flack Central. Taxpayers are forking over for all this, after all.

When you've got a public information officer at the Department of Transportation making $101,373, a Board of Governors press secretary pulling in $118,000, and a Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles communications director with $114,000, then you've got to know, in this rotten economy, sooner or later somebody is going to go kicking and screaming to the budget police.

Reach columnist Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.
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