This is a guest post by Emmy award-winning former reporter Brad White, who was director of global media affairs for ICANN from 2009 until 2021.
It seems like ICANN utters the phrase “accountability and transparency” about every third sentence. And with good cause, since it is a vital foundation upon which the organization was built. But there are indications that foundation is severely cracked.
Unfortunately, ICANN’s leadership too often seems to adopt the position that its commitment to accountability and transparency only extends to its interaction with its community. The news media and by extension – the public – are generally not prioritized.
Journalists and bloggers (who also inform the public) who reach out to the org with questions or interview requests are too often viewed in hostile terms.
The default position of ICANN executives generally appears to be to not talk with journalists unless they must. My sense is that they should adopt the opposite attitude. Specifically, that ICANN leadership should almost always speak with journalists.
In my experience, at various points in the past, ICANN execs even forbade anyone on the communications team from talking to select journalists or bloggers. I was reminded of Richard Nixon’s famous “enemy’s list.”
The very first ICANN Board Chair, Esther Dyson had a good grasp on transparency with the news media when she said, “What I’m thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson’s saying that he’d rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press.”
I worked 12 years at ICANN, before leaving in January 2021 to work as an independent communications consultant. A large part of my job during my tenure was to interact with the news media. Having spent most of my career as a journalist, I enjoyed that aspect of my work, and felt it a vital component of the org’s oft-stated commitment to “accountability and transparency.” But over the years, I witnessed a shift in the way the organization wanted me to perform that function.
During my early days, when a news reporter would reach out with a question and/or seek an interview, I would research the issue the journalist was asking about and then after consulting the appropriate people, pass along the answers and perhaps set up an interview with the appropriate ICANN subject matter expert. And, that was the end of it.
By the time I left, with increasing frequency, when a reporter contacted ICANN, the request ended up going to at least two or three senior executives, the legal department and sometimes the CEO. Too often, the collective decision was to say nothing, if at all possible. When answers were afforded to the journalist, they were too often non-responsive or they merely “pointed” the reporter to a previously published blog or announcement. There were of course exceptions to this approach, but they were few.
What is perhaps most troubling, is that the organization doesn’t seem to feel an obligation to speak with journalists as part of its core value of transparency and accountability, instead the determining factor as to whether to grant an interview was too often — “are they going to screw us?” It was not “we have an obligation to be open to talk to all, including reporters and bloggers, because we believe in accountability and transparency.”
Some years ago, I was asked to conduct media training for ICANN’s top executives so they would better understand journalists and also learn how to better interact with them. But in the immediate years preceding my departure, the media training program appears to have been terminated. In fact, word often went out that “no one should talk to the media.”
Shortly before I left, I was asked to write a report on “ICANN’s Media Strategy.” After submitting an initial draft, it seemed to have gone into a black hole. I was never questioned about the report. I never received a red-lined draft, excluding or including elements, nor was I asked to write a subsequent draft.
Given the apparent efforts to curtail interactions with journalists and bloggers, it was difficult to not interpret the shelving of the media strategy paper because of one of its major points was — “Reporters are not the enemy.”
My sincere hope is that the new Board leadership and the community will re-commit the organization towards maximum accountability and transparency, and that includes talking to journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who can help in implementing the vital checks, balances and accountability that are the foundation of ICANN’s work. It is critical in helping the world understand ICANN and its mission.
The post [Guest Post] Hey ICANN: Reporters are not the enemy first appeared on Domain Incite.