The President's Blog

Coverage of NACIO workshop at NACo Conference 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 3:36:00 PM Categories: NACIO

The National Association of Counties provided the following coverage of NACIO's workshop "Staying on Point: It's the Message" in its daily reports from the conference:

Staying on Point: It’s the Message

The popular National Association of County Information Officers (NACIO)–sponsored workshop, which provides the stage for participants to test their media skills, extended its winning streak today as more than 40 participants engaged in mock news conferences with sometimes belligerent fictive reporters.

The workshop offers quick tips from seasoned public information officers on how to craft and deliver messages to the media.

Workshop moderator Todd McGee, communications director, North Carolina Association of County Commissioners and NACIO president briefly discussed how to construct a message, treat the media and prepare for an interview.

Participants then broke into four groups, with each group given a controversial that needed to be communicated to the media. The group was to craft a message and select a leader who would participate in a mock news conference. Several seasoned public information officers acted as reporters, while all audience members were invited to play reporter as well. After the news conference, the groups critiqued their spokespersons and messages.

There was time for questions and answers after the presentations with many participants interested in how to handle the media during major disasters or incidents.

The workshop was recorded and will be available in the Learning Center on NACo’s website.


I would like to thank my group leaders and mock news conference reporters: Judy Brownlee, DeKalb County, Ga.; Kiara Jones, Pitt County, N.C.; Dave Rose, El Paso County, Colo.; Jessie Beyer, Blue Earth County, Minn., and Lori Hudson, Hillsborough County, Fla.

2013 Awards of Excellence Winners Announced 

Thursday, June 6, 2013 8:57:00 PM Categories: Awards of Excellence NACIO

The 2013 Awards of Excellence Winners were announced on Thursday, June 6. The competition showcased outstanding communications work from throughout the country. Eighteen entries received Best of Class recognition for being the best in their category or subcategory, while dozens of other entries were judged Superior, Excellence or Meritorious designations from the judges.

"The awards competition continually showcases the best communications and public relations projects from public information professionals throughout the country," said NACIO President Todd McGee, the Public Relations Director for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. "I know the judges had a difficult time in selecting the winners, and that is a testament to the great work that is being done to help citizens better understand what county governments do."

Prizes were awarded in nine categories, including video, publications, electronic communications, social media, special projects and others. Kiara Jones, the Director of Media Relations for Pitt County, N.C., served as chair of the awards program for 2013.

The winners will be recognized July 21 during the annual NACIO Awards Reception, held during the NACo Annual Conference. This year's event is in Fort Worth (Tarrant County), Texas. The reception is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Omni Hotel, Ballroom 1-3.

  • Click here for a list of winners.
  • Click here to view a recording of the Webinar.

 

The importance of media relations for elected officials 

Communicating with citizens the value provided by government is key
Wednesday, April 10, 2013 7:55:00 AM Categories: NACIO News

Being an elected official is no easy task, especially for those who serve at the local level, such as a County Commissioner. With the long hours and low pay, County Commissioners are frequently asked to vote on such hot-button issues as zoning, school funding, where to site a new landfill, or economic incentives. All too often, these issues potentially negatively impact neighbors, friends, family members and co-workers, making for uncomfortable trips to the grocery store or to the little league field to watch your child or grandchild play.

For county commissioners, there is nowhere to hide once you have made a difficult decision. But trying to hide from a controversial vote is perhaps the worst tact you could take anyway. Instead, a commissioner should take steps to explain to the citizens exactly why a decision was made and how it will ultimately wind up benefitting the community.

By taking proactive steps to get ahead of the story, commissioners can make sure citizens have all the facts that went into the decision. You may not get the citizens to agree with your decision, but at least they will know why you made it and what your intentions were.

There are simple steps an elected official can take to help ensure their side of a story gets out. The most important step is to develop a professional relationship with the local media. This doesn’t mean you have to become Facebook friends, send them holiday cards or invite them to your child’s birthday party. But it does mean that you should treat the reporter with respect, understand what your role is in the process, and always be responsive to their requests for information and comments.

Remember that the reporter is your conduit to the public at large, and cooperating with the reporter on a story – even a controversial one – will help get your side of the story out. In this day of understaffed newsrooms and 24/7 news cycles, reporters are often working multiple beats while being asked to post on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites.

The competition to be the first to break a story is fierce, thanks to the ever-increasing amount of citizen journalists (i.e. bloggers). You should always be respectful of a reporter’s deadlines, too. Remember that respect is a two-way street.

It is important to remember what your role is in the news-gathering process. As a county commissioner you – and not the reporter – are the expert. Your first goal is to help the reporter understand why a decision was made so they can in turn educate their readers (your constituents).

Don’t assume a reporter knows the issue. The local government beat is one of the first beats given to new reporters, and if a reporter is coming from a different state, he or she may be accustomed to a local government system that is completely different. It is up to you to help the reporter understand how your local government system works so they won’t make any errors when reporting a story.

Reporters will appreciate any help you provide, especially in making sure they publish accurate and verifiable facts. It doesn’t mean they won’t write about the controversial aspects of a story, and it doesn’t mean they won’t interview somebody from a citizens group or other organization that is opposed to your decision, but it should ensure that your side of the story is told.

It will also pay dividends down the road because reporters are always looking for good sources. The next time a citizen calls a reporter with another example of waste by their county government, the reporter might just call you to get the real story before deciding whether or not to write an article.

The next step is to develop a series of talking points about the issue. The key is to focus on the top two or three points and ignore some of the less-important factors. For some issues, there might be dozens of reasons behind the choice, but it is important that the commissioners settle on the top two or three key reasons for the decision. Each commissioner might have different reasons for why they voted, so it is important for a consensus to be reached on what are the key components and then for the board to stay on that message.

There are several guidelines to follow when developing your message. A message should communicate a benefit and describe a shared value. This is important because it enables you to make the connection with your citizens, to let them know how this decision will directly benefit them and the community at large.

Your message should also be short, concise and to the point. You need to be able to articulate this message in one or two sentences, because that’s about how much time you will be given on the local news report. A study recently showed that the average sound bite on the national news is about nine seconds, down from 48 seconds in 1968. Broadcast stations are trying to cover many stories in a 30-minute broadcast, so they are spending less time on each individual story.

It is also important to humanize the message. If the Board of Commissioners adopts a new program that is designed to make the public school system better, think about how you say that. Which sounds better? A) This new program will improve the test scores in our public school system. Or, B) This new program will improve the quality of education for all the children in our community so they will have the chance at a promising future.

Your message should be boiled down to a handful of key points – and refer to them over and over.

If you are in an interview with a news reporter, it is okay to keep repeating yourself. Eventually the reporter will figure out that the points you keep repeating are what you feel are the important points.

It is also important to remember that a message is not about you, and a message is not a goal or a statistic. Statistics and facts can help support your message, but they are not the message in and of themselves.

The final step is to take the story to the citizens. Commissioners should be prepared to answer for the decision immediately. In most cases, reporters will be present at the meeting and will expect to be able to get some reaction from the board immediately after the meeting.

In this instance, it would be important to designate one commissioner – presumably the Board’s appointed or elected chairperson – to serve as the official spokesperson. It is a lot easier to ensure the consistency of a message if only one person is delivering the message.

For controversial stories, it is likely that there will have already been reports in the local press about the issue because much of the mainstream media coverage of local government these days focuses on corruption and controversy. Newspapers in particular are trying to find a niche to help them survive, and government waste and abuse is always a top seller.

Because of this development, another key lesson for elected officials to learn is that you do not have to rely on the traditional news media to tell your story. In this day of 24/7 news cycles, counties can become their own media outlet. Consult with your public information officer to develop a press release, with facts and figures that highlight the key factors for your decision. The release should be posted on the official county website, preferably before the local newspaper hits doorsteps the next morning.

It is also very easy to post a video interview with the designated spokesperson that explains the rationale for the decision. The good news is you do not have to invest in a lot of studio equipment to produce Internet-quality videos. Many cellular phones these days shoot high-definition video. A good digital camera that can take still photos and shoot HD videos can be had for around $500. Editing software, a light kit, a wireless microphone and other odds and ends are not expensive either. A little investment in equipment can produce big returns in terms of public relations and public information.

For the past several years, the National Association of County Information Officers (NACIO) has hosted a workshop at the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference on how to educate the public about a controversial decision. One of the questions we are always asked is for advice on dealing with negative press.

Unfortunately, negative press is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be devastating. By following the tips and guidelines listed above, elected officials can play a key role in helping the citizens better understand why a controversial decision was made.

NACIO workshops highlight NACo conference 

Sessions on social media, transparency increase commissioner awareness
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 2:14:00 PM Categories: NACIO NACo

The National Association of Counties held several informative sessions for county elected officials at the recent National Association of Counties' legislative conference, which was held March 2-5 in Washington, D.C.

 
County officials and NACIO members share experiences and advice at the Communications Roundtable on March 3.

The series of events began Sunday, March 3, with the annual Communications Roundtable. The session gives county elected officials an opportunity to share their experiences in media relations and ask questions of NACIO members about thorny public relations issues.

On Monday, March 4, Wendy Holmes of Douglas County, Colo., NACIO Second Vice President Lori Hudson of Hillsborough County, Fla., and Washington Examiner report Alan Blinder provided attendees with tips and ideas about increasing trust through transparency.

On Tuesday, March 5, NACIO President Todd McGee, El Paso (Colo.) County Commissioner Sallie Clark and Matthew Fellows, NACo's New Media Manager, discussed social media and ways that counties can use social media to connect with citizens.

All of the sessions were well attended and generated many positive comments from conference attendees. NACIO will once again be invited to host workshops at the NACo Annual Conference in July. The conference will be held July 19-22 in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Texas. If you have an idea for a 75-minute session that would benefit county elected officials, please contact NACIO President Todd McGee.

 

NACIO highlights the value of PIOs 

Monday, February 18, 2013 9:06:00 AM Categories: Awards of Excellence NACIO NACo

Part of NACIO's mission is to help validate the value of PIOs to county elected officials. That is why NACIO has always been so active with the National Association of Counties (NACo).

Since I have been involved with NACIO, beginning way back in 2003, NACIO has always sponsored popular workshops at both NACo annual meetings - the Legislative Conference in March and the Annual Conference in July. Our workshops are always among the highest-rated and generate great discussion among conference attendees.

At the upcoming March Legislative Conference, which is being held March 2-6, NACIO will once again be well represented. On Monday, March 4, at 10:45 a.m., NACIO members will present a workshop on the value of openness. "Using Transparency to Build Trust" will help attendees understand how making your government activities as transparent as possible can help build trust in the community and avoid negative press. NACIO Second Vice President Lori Hudson of Hillsborough County, Fla., and Wendy Holmes, the Director of Public Affairs for Douglas County, Colo., will talk about how counties can be transparent and responsive to requests from citizens and why this is important.

In addition, Alan Blinder, a reporter for The Examiner in Washington, D.C., will talk about his experiences - good and bad - in making public information requests of local governments.

On Tuesday, March 5, at 10:45 a.m., I will be a panelist in another workshop, "Extending Your Communications Outreach: Social Media." This session will look at ways that counties can use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sites as part of their outreach programs. Social media offers a very cost-effective way to communicate with constituents, but it is not without its perils.

These workshops help establish the value of PIOs and are great PR for NACIO. Another way we help validate the value of PIOs is through our annual Awards of Excellence Program.

The 2013 contest is now open and accepting entries. Unfortunately, we had to switch NACIO Awards Chairs in midstream, but Kiara Jones of Pitt County, N.C., has agreed to step in and lead this year's competition.

Please click on the Awards of Excellence tab to learn more about the contest and how you can bring recognition to your county for the excellent communicaitons work being created by your department.

The wisdom of our peers 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 10:22:00 PM

Political campaigns have always amused me, whether it be the contest for President, Governor or a local office. All politicians sound like they have all the answers to every problem known to man, and if you will vote for them, everything will be fine.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Politicians - like the rest of us - put their pants on one leg at a time. Part of what I value about my participation with NACIO is that I learn so much just be interacting with PIOs and public affairs directors from across the country. A good Public Information Office does know a lot about media relations, but even the best PIOs are always stretching themselves to learn more.

Several months ago, I started a thread on the LinkedIn website asking on advice on responding to media inquires for local government employees who don't typically deal with reporters. I got a lot of interesting tidbits that I thought I would share with my fellow NACIO members.

The overwhelming piece of advice mentioned by several posters was to prepare for the interview. In fact, most folks who mentioned this repeated the word "prepare" several times - the point being that you cannot be over-prepared for an interview. There is an old military maxim that sums up this point - time spent in reconnaisance is seldom time wasted.

Here are some other good pieces of advice:

  • Don't go "off the record."
  • Don't wear sunglasses! 
  • Always close with a positive takeaway message.
  • Remember that the camera is always rolling, so answer every question asked by the reporter 
  • It is imperative to respond quickly to a reporter's call, but not imperative that you answer a reporter's question with that first call back. (This is a great piece of advice. Many folks not accustomed to working with the media will panic when they realize a reporter is on the other end of the phone and start babbling. Take some time to prepare - see point No. 1 above - and then call the reporter back once you have figured out what you want to say.)
  • Never say "No Comment."
  • Tell the truth. As a good friend of mine was fond of saying, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember what you said."
  • Deadlines don't exist any more. Social media and the Internet have eliminated the concept of deadlnes, so if a crisis occurs, be ready to get your message out immediately.

 

 

Top 10 reasons a county should have a PIO 

Friday, January 4, 2013 7:54:00 AM

Over the next few years, I would like to see NACIO develop some resources so that local elected officials will have a better understanding of the value of public information and public information officers. I recently submitted to the listserv a request for folks to send to me their top reasons why a county should hire a PIO.

Thank you to all who submitted ideas. Below is the list we came up with. If you have an idea you would like to see included, please email it to me. Eventually, I want to develop a set of resources that will help county officials understand the value of a dedicated, trained and professional PIO.

  1. "Information to the people ... is the most legitimate engine of government." (Thomas Jefferson). There is no more important function than providing information to the people. Why trust someone else to do that for you?
  2. Citizens need to know the full gamut of work done by the county, and by their elected officials, to make smart judgments about the government “by and for the people” in a democracy.
  3. Don’t leave it up to the traditional media to determine what is news. A good PIO can not only influence media coverage, but can also help generate positive publicity using a county’s internal media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, website, etc.)
  4. Outsourcing PR and marketing duties is more expensive and less cohesive. Branding and marketing are synergized and more effective when using your own staff. Your own PR staff understands your organization better and is more loyal and committed to it.
  5. A PIO can get out good, positive news about what’s going on in your county to help to balance the times when there is a negative story. If people only see the negative, they think that’s all the county is about.
  6. A PIO can provide training and guidance for elected officials and management staff on working with the media, especially during a crisis or a potentially damaging story.
  7. A PIO can save money by preventing many problems that stem from NO external communication or very poor communication. Time and again, important public efforts end up costing more time and money when the public is not informed in a timely and effective manner. When that happens, as it does all too often, PIOs can be instrumental in resolving the problems.
  8. A continuous supply of credible, easy-to-understand information is necessary to obtain and maintain public input and support. PIOs don't just get information OUT. We also help get information IN to the county. Informed citizens get involved and make positive contributions to policy development and service delivery.
  9. A good PIO can also manage internal communications. Informed employees provide better service and serve as ambassadors for the county in the community; they inform others - neighbors, relatives, friends - who ask them all sorts of questions about the county.
  10. Through constructive communication, the county becomes more effective, efficient, and sustainable, and partnerships are forged to leverage public and private resources, including people and expertise.

 

The value of public information 

Monday, December 17, 2012 11:09:00 AM Categories: NACIO News

Thomas Jefferson wrote often on the value of open, accessible government. He has many quotes that I have used to begin presentations to various groups, some of which I will include here: 

  • "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
  • "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."
  • "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."
  • "Information to the people ... is the most legitimate engine of government."

 

Public Information Officers play a crucial role in preserving our democracy, by educating citizens about the services and programs that counties provide and communicating with citizens during times of crisis. These activities can overcome the negative perceptions and mistrust that many citizens have of government by helping citizens see how their county government is actually working for their benefit.

But all too often local elected officials don't understand the value of public information. Most counties do not even have public information officers. For those that do, the PIO is often viewed as a luxury and not a necessity; when budget difficulties arise, as has happened during the recession of the last few years, the PIO is often among the positions that are eliminated.

I think Thomas Jefferson would disagree with the idea that public information is a luxury that can only be supported during times of economic prosperity. In this day and age, a PIO is more important than ever. Newspapers are disappearing; some are folding, others are printing smaller and smaller editions with less staff than ever before.

In an effort to remain viable, the media has turned its focus to government corruption and waste. When controversy is the only story that gets significant coverage, it is easy for citizens to become disenfranchised.

The Internet has made it easier for citizens to get information, but it also makes it easy for citizens to post dis-information. It is easy for that dis-information to be accepted as fact if no one is available to set the record straight.

 

Hudson wins Second VP election 

Thursday, November 15, 2012 12:14:00 PM Categories: NACIO News

Lori Hudson of Hillsborough County, Fla., emerged victorious in the race for the open NACIO Second Vice President seat with a narrow win over Dave Rose of El Paso County, Colo.

Hudson will serve as NACIO Second Vice President through July 2013 to complete the remainder of the term. Former NACIO President Larry Liddell of Tunica County, Miss., resigned in October after his position was eliminated by the county.

Hudson is the Communications Director and has 17 years of experience in government communications and public affairs.

Todd McGee, the Communications Director for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, will complete Liddell's term as President through July 2013, then serve his scheduled two-year term as President beginning in July 2013.

Jessica Beyer, Business Analyst and Communications Manager for Blue Earth County, Minn., is NACIO's First Vice President.

Another feather in NACIO's cap 

Thursday, November 15, 2012 11:50:00 AM Categories: NACIO NACo

Twice a year, the National Association of Counties (NACo) solicits ideas for workshops for its annual Legislative Conference in March and the Annual Conference in July. The sessions must be relevant to county elected officials. As an affiliate of NACo, we are offered the opportunity to submit proposals.

For as long as I have been active with NACIO (almost a decade now!), our organization has almost always had at least one workshop - and sometimes two, or even three - at every NACo conference. As it turns out, county elected officials are very interested in all aspects of media relations, from the rise of social media to basic tips on how to handle tricky situations. Past NACIO sessions have included outside presenters on how to read body language, how to improve listening skills and Media Relations 101.

I am proud to report that NACIO's workshops are almost always among the highest-rated at the NACo conference. These sessions are a great way for NACIO members to share their expertise with county officials from across the nation. Equally important, they are a testament to the value that a Public Information Officer can bring to a county government.

This year, NACo just announced its workshop selections for the 2013 Legislative Conference, which will be held March 2-6, 2013, at the Washington, D.C., Hilton Hotel (the infamous hotel where John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan). Once again, NACIO's submission has been accepted.

This year we are going to offer a training session on how to deal with public records requests and the value of transparency. How a local government responds to public records requests shows a lot about that jurisdiction's committee to transparency, and this session will help local officials understand how transparency can build trust within the community.

Panelists for the session include Wendy Manita-Holmes, the Director of Public Affairs for Douglas County, Colo., and newly elected NACIO Second Vice President Lori Hudson of Hillsborough County, Fla. Participating in a workshop is a great way for NACIO members to get more involved with the organization and also to share your professional expertise, and I am very excited to have two such great panelists lined up for the session.

NACo will soon be soliciting ideas for their annual conference, which will be held July 19-222 in Fort Worth (Tarrant County), Texas. When the announcement is made, I will share the information on the NACIO listserv. In the meantime, be thinking of ideas you might have for a workshop,and if you can make it to Texas for the conference, we would love to have you as a presenter.

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