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On the Record

On the Record

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    Brief reporters before severe weather hits. Having complete background information helps them formulate coverage under tight deadlines.

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    Former Louisville, Ky., communications coordinator Allison Martin scheduled ride-alongs with public works crews to give reporters a first-hand look at how the department operates and provide a human-interest angle at the same time. Photo: Louisville Metro Government

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    Louisville residents and media could visit the city's Web site to check the progress of cleanup efforts after a winter ice storm. Public Works' Planning Division created the map using the city's geodatabase.

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    In January, an ice storm took out enough tree limbs to fill a football field 200 feet high. Photo: Louisville Metro Government

Richardson was in regular contact with the city's current public works director, Ted Pullen, throughout the day during the effort. She sent out weekly progress updates and handled most media calls directly. “We knew we could count on the e-mails, so we weren't bugging them at 3:15 p.m. worried that we weren't going to get our numbers,” says Klepal of the statistics — such as tons of debris removed daily — he incorporated into his stories.

Rumors take root when there's a vacuum of information, so get the news out as soon and as often as possible, says Rudy Nydegger, professor of psychology and management at the Graduate College of Union University in Schenectady, N.Y.

“With natural disasters, people feel out of control and look for explanations,” he says. “They like to grab onto the scary, dramatic news and be the first ones to spread it.” He advises public works employees to call their media contacts with bits of information as soon as they have updates. “It's like giving them a scoop,” he says.

ACCOMMODATE THEIR SCHEDULES

There were no rumors of contaminated drinking water during this year's flood, the worst in Fargo's history as the Red River crested at 40.82 feet — more than a foot higher than in 1997. To preempt misinformation devolving into rumors, public works provided up-to-date information from those leading the flood response.

For two-and-a-half weeks, the department used the city's cable access channel to televise a daily 8 a.m. meeting that became known as the “early morning show.” Two dozen heads of public agencies, including city departments, the school district, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took turns sharing prepared comments about the status of recovery efforts. Journalists were allowed to attend the meetings for background information but couldn't ask questions until a press conference that followed at 9 a.m.

“It was televised live before the 9 a.m. press conference so we could communicate directly with the public,” says Dennis Walaker, who was elected mayor in 2006 after serving as public works director of operations for 17 years. The procedure allows the department to control the message while accommodating the needs of the media, which is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.

In Louisville, media now know to expect two daily press conferences — at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.— during severe weather. “We try to keep the mayor's and public works director's availability down to one or two times a day,” Richardson says.

Overland Park, Kan., gets hit with everything from wind storms and tornados to floods and snow storms. A 19-year veteran of the city, Maintenance Division Superintendent Dave Bergner knows timing is crucial to managing the tone of media coverage.

“We put out information about an impending storm 12 to 72 hours in advance of it,” he says of his work with the city's public information officer. “We tell the media, ‘Here's what we're anticipating, and here's what we plan to do about it.'” Department supervisors meet regularly to discuss strategies, he says, “so the message is consistent when the media contact us.”

HUMANIZE THE MESSAGE

There's a saying that reporters know a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing.

Journalists are constantly thrown into new situations, so it falls upon public works employees to educate them and put situations into context for readers and viewers. Often, that can be accomplished just as well by rank-and-file employees as directors and supervisors.

“Your employees get the message out basically unfiltered and with a real face. They tell personal stories,” says Louisville's Martin. Interviews should be on location, such as at the salt dome or in the field during cleanup after a storm.

Use interviews with crew members to the department's advantage. “Their message is basically, ‘You may get mad at us for not quickly responding during a snow storm, but our families have to use the same streets as you do, and we're doing the best job we can,'” says Overland Park's Bergner. He allows television cameras and reporters inside vehicles to see street conditions from the driver's perspective.

Even if a department or community employs a public information officer, expect to work directly with reporters when they're covering particularly technical issues.

“The communications people can deal with the media, but they don't understand the storm sewer system; they don't understand the drinking water system,” Walaker says. “Many times the media need to talk to the people who really know about that.”

But whether it's a supervisor or an employee, common sense goes a long way.

“Be honest. Don't hype it up, but don't underplay it, either,” Bergner advises. “If there's a question you can't accurately answer, just say you don't know and that you'll have to check on it.”

That transparency builds respect, which builds trust. “The media have a job, and you have to understand that,” Walaker says. “If you accommodate them, you'll always have a good relationship.”

Proactive communication
  1. Send regular e-mail alerts to local media.
  2. Discuss strategies with department supervisors beforehand to keep a consistent message.
  3. Report updates early and often.
  4. Be honest and straightforward.