Commentary: On the Need for a PIO

public-relationsYesterday 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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 Comments

  1. Mr. Toad

    This article is nonsense. How did the city get their tax increase through? Steve Pinkerton in his last months as city manager and his staff went out and made presentations to community groups about the budget situation facing the city. This is how you do it you have your leaders make the case to the community face to face in small groups. Perhaps with three of our council members running in the election more could have been done but with the election over we have more leaders to engage with the community. Of course what the community needs instead of an information officer is a city manager to fill the position vacated when Pinkerton left. A city manager who can do the work of a PIO as part of his or her day job.

    The first rule of governance as in life is that in any relationship respect is earned. Only by providing respectful leadership can the city and the school district earn the support of the community. Our part time leaders are not bumpkins who just fell off the turnip truck. They can effectively communicate their positions to the electorate. Our city council has one Ph.D, two lawyers, an economist working for a Fortune 500 corporation and a Legislative Director at the State Capitol in Sacramento. These are not naive people who should need hand holding and mouth pieces. Our school district trustees have similar credentials and include two Lawyers and a Ph.D.

    The problem at the school district isn’t lack of communication its trying to sell the wrong message. Telling people to “Calm down” or “Move on” isn’t a good message especially when the underlying policy decisions are in question. Hiring a mouthpiece is what you do when you can’t take the heat. As Hemingway one said “Courage is grace under pressure.” That was the failure of certain members of our school district leadership, they were unable to maintain grace under pressure.

    The only other reason you hire a mouthpiece is when the institution is too big for the existing leadership to communicate with its constituency. Yet in Davis we are not so big that we have district elections to reduce the responsibility for communication between leaders and the community to smaller numbers of people so that logic doesn’t apply. Communicating to the community is the job of the elected leaders and their managers. In a community of 65,000 wired for the 21st century you shouldn’t need a person to run interference for those whose responsibility is to lead the community.

    Hiring people whose sole task is to spin your message in a community this size says that those currently responsible for communication lack the skills needed to effectively lead the community. It is a waste of money. Money that in the case of DJUSD comes out of where it belongs, providing educational services to students.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “How did the city get their tax increase through? Steve Pinkerton in his last months as city manager and his staff went out and made presentations to community groups about the budget situation facing the city.”

      I will repost my june 26 comment:

      2007 – parcel tax passed with 70%
      2008 – parcel tax passed with 75%
      2011 – parcel tax passed with 67.2%
      2012 – parcel tax passed with 72.3%
      2012 – parcel tax passed with 69%

      2010 – sales tax renewed at 74.5%
      2012 – parks tax renewed at 84%
      2014 – sales tax increase at 58%

      the sales tax – modest as it was did far worse than other taxes in the community. i don’t buy therefore that the city ran a good campaign here. moreover, i would argue that the parcel tax polling confirms this.

      you believe that councilmembers and school board members can do this, but then you site misstep after missept as though they were some sort of accident of poor planning rather than a manifestation of a larger problem.

    2. Tia Will

      Mr.Toad

      “Hiring people whose sole task is to spin your message in a community this size says that those currently responsible for communication lack the skills needed to effectively lead the community”

      If their sole task were “to spin your message”, then I would agree with you. But I do not see this as their task.
      We have very complicated issues facing the city as was just demonstrated by different posters versions of the various options for dealing with the pool infrastructure situation and apparent misunderstanding about what options were and were not available for improving traffic flow and safety on 5th street. I see it as a full time task to just get out factual information with clarifications in a timely manner. I do not believe as you have implied that the size of the community is the only factor in deciding whether the city manager alone should be responsible for educating the public. Surely the amount and intensity of public interest would also play a role.

      I know from personal ( albeit minor ) involvement in two of the recent campaigns that the CC members time could completely be dominated by citizens wanting to talk with them personally about their positions. In many cities in which I have lived, this would have been a minor flurry right before an election. This is not true in Davis where there is a much higher level of direct citizen involvement…..and thus the need for more direct communication.

  2. Mr. Toad

    This article is nonsense. How did the city get their tax increase through? Steve Pinkerton in his last months as city manager and his staff went out and made presentations to community groups about the budget situation facing the city. This is how you do it you have your leaders make the case to the community face to face in small groups. Perhaps with three of our council members running in the election more could have been done but with the election over we have more leaders to engage with the community. Of course what the community needs instead of an information officer is a city manager to fill the position vacated when Pinkerton left. A city manager who can do the work of a PIO as part of his or her day job.

    The first rule of governance as in life is that in any relationship respect is earned. Only by providing respectful leadership can the city and the school district earn the support of the community. Our part time leaders are not bumpkins who just fell off the turnip truck. They can effectively communicate their positions to the electorate. Our city council has one Ph.D, two lawyers, an economist working for a Fortune 500 corporation and a Legislative Director at the State Capitol in Sacramento. These are not naive people who should need hand holding and mouth pieces. Our school district trustees have similar credentials and include two Lawyers and a Ph.D.

    The problem at the school district isn’t lack of communication its trying to sell the wrong message. Telling people to “Calm down” or “Move on” isn’t a good message especially when the underlying policy decisions are in question. Hiring a mouthpiece is what you do when you can’t take the heat. As Hemingway one said “Courage is grace under pressure.” That was the failure of certain members of our school district leadership, they were unable to maintain grace under pressure.

    The only other reason you hire a mouthpiece is when the institution is too big for the existing leadership to communicate with its constituency. Yet in Davis we are not so big that we have district elections to reduce the responsibility for communication between leaders and the community to smaller numbers of people so that logic doesn’t apply. Communicating to the community is the job of the elected leaders and their managers. In a community of 65,000 wired for the 21st century you shouldn’t need a person to run interference for those whose responsibility is to lead the community.

    Hiring people whose sole task is to spin your message in a community this size says that those currently responsible for communication lack the skills needed to effectively lead the community. It is a waste of money. Money that in the case of DJUSD comes out of where it belongs, providing educational services to students.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “How did the city get their tax increase through? Steve Pinkerton in his last months as city manager and his staff went out and made presentations to community groups about the budget situation facing the city.”

      I will repost my june 26 comment:

      2007 – parcel tax passed with 70%
      2008 – parcel tax passed with 75%
      2011 – parcel tax passed with 67.2%
      2012 – parcel tax passed with 72.3%
      2012 – parcel tax passed with 69%

      2010 – sales tax renewed at 74.5%
      2012 – parks tax renewed at 84%
      2014 – sales tax increase at 58%

      the sales tax – modest as it was did far worse than other taxes in the community. i don’t buy therefore that the city ran a good campaign here. moreover, i would argue that the parcel tax polling confirms this.

      you believe that councilmembers and school board members can do this, but then you site misstep after missept as though they were some sort of accident of poor planning rather than a manifestation of a larger problem.

    2. Tia Will

      Mr.Toad

      “Hiring people whose sole task is to spin your message in a community this size says that those currently responsible for communication lack the skills needed to effectively lead the community”

      If their sole task were “to spin your message”, then I would agree with you. But I do not see this as their task.
      We have very complicated issues facing the city as was just demonstrated by different posters versions of the various options for dealing with the pool infrastructure situation and apparent misunderstanding about what options were and were not available for improving traffic flow and safety on 5th street. I see it as a full time task to just get out factual information with clarifications in a timely manner. I do not believe as you have implied that the size of the community is the only factor in deciding whether the city manager alone should be responsible for educating the public. Surely the amount and intensity of public interest would also play a role.

      I know from personal ( albeit minor ) involvement in two of the recent campaigns that the CC members time could completely be dominated by citizens wanting to talk with them personally about their positions. In many cities in which I have lived, this would have been a minor flurry right before an election. This is not true in Davis where there is a much higher level of direct citizen involvement…..and thus the need for more direct communication.

  3. Barack Palin

    We don’t need to be spending more money for a position that isn’t critical at this time. The City just needs to lay out the “facts” and numbers and let the electorate decide. We don’t need or want the City using our tax dollars for political reasons. If the City were to try and hire a PIO or any outside media entity for the purposes of pushing any tax or other agenda the people should be up in arms about their tax money being used for this.

      1. South of Davis

        I could not find Stacy in the 2012 list (see link below), but I did find:

        ROBERT M BOWEN PUBLIC RELATIONS MANAGER II Total pay & benefits $124,505.96

        I also found:

        PAUL M SEARS SUSTAINABILITY PROGRAMS COORD Total pay & benefits $148,394.42
        DAVID J KEMP BICYCLE/PEDESTRIAN COORDINATOR Total pay & benefits $118,216.09
        MARIE M GRAHAM UTILITY PROGRAM COORDINATOR Total pay & benefits $114,746.38
        TAMIKO J KWAK SENIOR CHILD CARE SUPERVISOR Total pay & benefits $109,746.61
        RHYS J ROWLAND ENVIRONMENTAL PRGM SPECIALIST Total pay & benefits $94,603.71
        CATHERINE A. TUREK CHILD CARE FINANCIAL SUPERVIS Total pay & benefits $86,555.22

        http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/davis/?page=1

  4. Barack Palin

    We don’t need to be spending more money for a position that isn’t critical at this time. The City just needs to lay out the “facts” and numbers and let the electorate decide. We don’t need or want the City using our tax dollars for political reasons. If the City were to try and hire a PIO or any outside media entity for the purposes of pushing any tax or other agenda the people should be up in arms about their tax money being used for this.

      1. South of Davis

        I could not find Stacy in the 2012 list (see link below), but I did find:

        ROBERT M BOWEN PUBLIC RELATIONS MANAGER II Total pay & benefits $124,505.96

        I also found:

        PAUL M SEARS SUSTAINABILITY PROGRAMS COORD Total pay & benefits $148,394.42
        DAVID J KEMP BICYCLE/PEDESTRIAN COORDINATOR Total pay & benefits $118,216.09
        MARIE M GRAHAM UTILITY PROGRAM COORDINATOR Total pay & benefits $114,746.38
        TAMIKO J KWAK SENIOR CHILD CARE SUPERVISOR Total pay & benefits $109,746.61
        RHYS J ROWLAND ENVIRONMENTAL PRGM SPECIALIST Total pay & benefits $94,603.71
        CATHERINE A. TUREK CHILD CARE FINANCIAL SUPERVIS Total pay & benefits $86,555.22

        http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/davis/?page=1

  5. PhilColeman

    Every government entity with significant continuous public exposure needs a PIO designee. For a large city or county, or college or university, a dedicated PIO is warranted. Anything less, the PIO task is designated to a senior manager or administrator as a collateral task. This should address concerns about additional cost for a PIO in the City of Davis. It is not necessary. There should be a City Hall PIO rep and similar reps for police, public works, community development, and maybe one or two more.

    There are superb training courses available in the art and science of media relations. It requires a skill set and a distinct personality to fulfill this task. But the skills are relatively easily acquired with skilled teaching and training. Media reps love participating in such efforts because it is in everybody’s mutual interest to have open communications between government units and the media. I could go into what entails effective communication between government and the public through the media outlets, but that is a topic for perhaps another time.

    1. SODA

      Thx Phil. I was thinking Kelly in the City Manager’s Office would be a good choice. Not sure what her other duties are but she seems linked into the community and Davis values. If needed, a consulting firm could be given a small contract for PR.

  6. PhilColeman

    Every government entity with significant continuous public exposure needs a PIO designee. For a large city or county, or college or university, a dedicated PIO is warranted. Anything less, the PIO task is designated to a senior manager or administrator as a collateral task. This should address concerns about additional cost for a PIO in the City of Davis. It is not necessary. There should be a City Hall PIO rep and similar reps for police, public works, community development, and maybe one or two more.

    There are superb training courses available in the art and science of media relations. It requires a skill set and a distinct personality to fulfill this task. But the skills are relatively easily acquired with skilled teaching and training. Media reps love participating in such efforts because it is in everybody’s mutual interest to have open communications between government units and the media. I could go into what entails effective communication between government and the public through the media outlets, but that is a topic for perhaps another time.

    1. SODA

      Thx Phil. I was thinking Kelly in the City Manager’s Office would be a good choice. Not sure what her other duties are but she seems linked into the community and Davis values. If needed, a consulting firm could be given a small contract for PR.

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