Yesterday we analyzed a letter to the editor that complained about city budgetary priorities, while conflating council actions with the actions of private citizens and groups in the community, and expressed a variety of opinions based on a partial understanding of the facts.
Given the long track record of the city struggling to clearly communicate with the public and struggling with outreach, it has long made sense to me that the city, like the school district has recently done, consider hiring a PIO (Public Information Officer) to be in charge of the dispensing of public information.
Obviously, in times of tough budgets, any large new expenditure will be questioned, but much as I see the need for a quality city manager whose salary would likely more than pay for itself, a PIO would provide similar benefits.
One poster wrote, “I’m totally against our city employing or contracting out any type of PR work. The city can get their word out through the Enterprise, mailers with our utility bills and other such venues.”
There are two problems with this comment, from my standpoint.
First, the poster is confusing the medium with the messenger. The poster correctly identifies media that can transmit the messenger to the public, but fails to note that the medium is not necessarily going to change with a PIO, but rather the message itself.
Also, I happen to believe that the local paper, mailers, and “other such venues” are insufficient. That is a chief reason why the Vanguard was created in the first place. And second, those messages are not working, as evidenced by the haphazard approach to public relations and the mish-mash of different views that get out to the public.
It was clear where the poster was headed with this: “Voting or not voting for a city measure is the choice and right of its citizens. Why should it be right for any citizen to have their own tax dollars used against them when they might be against a proposed city tax or measure?”
As Tia Will noted, “I think your comment says much more about your attitude towards government than it says about anything that the city might or might not do. Why would you assume that the information provided would not be complete and balanced?”
She correctly points out that the city is often not unified. From our perspective, the city’s job is to provide the facts, not to push for an agenda. And yes, there is a line between the two.
A second point was raised by another poster with regard to the school district. They wrote, “A PIO is a waste of money. The school board should get out there and make their case. I would much rather that money went to a teacher, a nurse or a counselor.”
They added, “I guess we have different ideas about education reform. My idea is to put the money into helping kids. Yours amplifies the bureaucracy. If there is an issue that needs addressing between the school district and the community then the district administration or the school board should make the case.”
But then he contradicted his previous point by saying, “The only reason to waste precious dollars, education dollars in this way is because the current leadership of the district hasn’t done a good job of communicating with the public. The answer is for leadership is to be more effective at communicating, not a larger bureaucracy.”
That is the fundamental problem with modern government – it is complex. The elected officials are representatives of the public, but they are not the policy experts. They rely in each case on city staff or district administrators who are trained experts in a given field. As the field becomes more complex, the government entity will outsource consultants and experts to provide further guidance.
One need only look at the exchanges last spring between the city council and Bob Dunning to understand how complex some of these things become. Bob Dunning’s ability to exploit the councilmembers’ lack of understanding of the water structure served to undermine the credibility of the city’s campaign.
While we can hearken back to the point about the city using tax dollars against the public, in this case the problem was more basic – it wasn’t that the rates were the problem necessarily, it was that the wrong people were attempting to communicate with the press and were getting their words twisted and ultimately distorted.
Part-time school board and city councilmembers cannot be the policy experts and need to have professional guidance in order to get the facts out in a way that is accurate and to communicate to the public what they are doing.
Remember, these public officials are not full-time employees; almost all of them have day jobs and the business of government and rules, regulations, funding sources are very complex.
This is not about the city running a campaign to attempt to push an agenda for higher taxes, this is about the city having the basic ability to inform the public about the facts as to what they are doing.
I see education and governance in general as a partnership between the agency and the public, and the agency needs to have effective communication with the public. Given the complexity of governance – rules, regulations, funding sources, there needs to be a professional to keep the public in the loop so that when the time comes to ask for help, they don’t have to do what they are doing now, the launch of a public relations campaign to inform the public – in this case, as to the need for roads, but at other times, it is a whole host of other things.
Given the amount of misinformation getting out to the public, the city and school district both need to find better ways of communication. One way is to start by having a PIO. But the other thing is to stop doing outreach like it’s 1999 still.
We have a tech-savvy public who can be informed about city and school district business in ways far more diverse than the ones we continue to implement.
Is there an expense to hiring a PIO? Absolutely. But there is also an expense and a time drain when you consistently fail to communicate with the public and therefore have to do things over and other again when you might have been able to get things right the first time with a bit more due diligence and expertise up front.
—David M. Greenwald reporting