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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Compass Points -1/2006

By Al Campbell

It forms the basis of something called “public relations.”
Any public entity needs public relations, whether or not it believes that fact.
Recently, Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters advocated the need for such public relations, and floated the idea of hiring an outside firm to publicize all the borough’s good happenings.
At the same time, Walters reminded residents that each and every one of them was equally responsible as a public relations agent for their hometown.
Lacking people who tell their relatives and friends about the island’s positive points, she said, makes all public relations null and void.
From a reporter’s perspective, a public relations firm isn’t needed. What is necessary is an open dialog with officials. Trouble is, many officials, and I am not targeting Stone Harbor by any means, are like youth league team coaches. They’ll tell you when the team is winning, but when it’s losing, they clam up.
I would advocate to every public official a Navy training publication on being a public information officer. It was one of the things I read and thoroughly enjoyed while enlisted in the service.
What came through loud and clear: never shy from the media, even, and especially, when the news is bad. Face up to reporters’ questions and don’t be afraid. Tell the truth, and reporters will respect you and your organization.
Try to be sly, and that veil of half-truths becomes transparent.
Unfortunately, far too few officials know anything about public relations. That’s why they spend money hiring former news people to do something newspapers do for free: carry the news.
Open communications is vital. That becomes clear, not only at election time, but throughout the year.
Stone Harbor’s Police Department recently underwent a microscopic review of every policy and procedure to become recertified.
One of the important facets of that review was how well the department communicated press releases to the media. It was something that had to be documented.
That meant a litany of releases showing what the department had done which, by nature of the beast, showed how many offenders were nabbed within the borders of town.
It happened. It was reported and published. Incredibly, the sun rose every day thereafter. The world did not end. People still respect the law and police there.
Public relations often fail because of a longstanding fear by officials for the written word and reporters who write those words. That’s sad. It should not be that way.
Not communicating is like a wound that festers and gets infected. Unless it’s lanced, and the poison drains, things only get worse.
Eons ago, it seems, former Middle Township Mayor Mike Voll embarked on weekly sessions with reporters. It was his way to open up to questions, or to extol things that happened within the township.
It didn’t cost anything. If he had a beef, he’d air it. If something bothered you, as a reporter, you told him. It built a positive bridge with reporters.
Much of public relations boils down to common sense and courtesy, both in short supply these days. It’s sad, too, that often, public relations duties are foisted on an unwilling employe with no skill or training in media contact. That invites trouble.
As with many institutions, what seems most lacking is mutual respect between officials and the media. Reporters are trained to be skeptical, but that doesn’t make us the enemy.
Officials are elected by the voters to serve. We must respect that and them.
We, of the Fourth Estate, are reminded, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” Translated: Don’t take anything on face value until you know it’s true. Even then, be wary.
If the public is interested enough in a town or subject, it will seek out and read stories happenings there. If there is enough concern, an informed public will meet with its governing body and ask questions. That’s not bad, that’s democracy in action. If such questions bother officials, it’s not bad publicity, it shows more communication is needed.
Once the public is informed, and understands why certain things happen, a positive view of officials will occur. They may not like their officials, but they will respect them.
It’s all a matter of public perception, good, bad or ugly.

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