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Communications workshop points to relationships as key

When it comes to working with the news media and engaging the public, the bottom line is relationships are key. That’s the conclusion that all of the speakers came to at this week’s “One of Many Hats” workshop in their presentations to more than 50 participants who have communications as one of their job responsibilities.

The Municipal Association of SC and the SC Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America jointly hosted the workshop.

Sandy Hook police spokesman said media relationships meant trust
Paul Vance, former lieutenant with the Connecticut State Police, served as the sole police spokesman in aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. 

“Existing media relationships meant a high level of trust between local law enforcement and reporters immediately following the shootings,” he said.

Lt. Vance described several incidents during the weeks following the shootings when having trusting relationships with the media paid off. This was especially true in ensuring the privacy of the victims’ families.

Lt. Vance said that his top priority in dealing with the media after the shootings was making sure nothing happened or was said that could cause harm or hurt to the families. Because reporters already trusted him and the information he was sharing, they were more inclined to respect his requests about staying away from the grieving families.

Lt. Vance said he approached building media relationships by serving reporters as a customer. 

“When the press calls, you help, and that’s what I told my staff to do,” he said.

More details about Vance’s presentation will be posted next week. During his time in Columbia, Lt. Vance also spoke to a class at the USC College of Journalism and led a training session for more than 150 law enforcement officers and staff at the Municipal Association.

Reporters want a “wow” factor
“Give me something with a ‘wow’ factor,” said Andy Shain, Columbia bureau chief with the Post and Courier, when asked about how to make press releases compelling. “Don’t tell me how many widgets your company is producing,” Andy said. “Tell me how the widgets are making life better.”

The initial four-part series continued as WYFF’s “4 Your Safety” with more than 40 segments. The series covered topics such as the importance of yielding the right of way while driving, how to spray a fire extinguisher and how to clean out a lint trap in a dryer to prevent fires. While the Greer Police Department received positive feedback, WYFF’s viewers also began calling and emailing with segment ideas.He also noted having a good relationship with reporters can help get your release picked up or your story covered. Reporters and communicators both have a job to do. Understanding that humanizes the exchange.

“Plus, the 24-hour news cycle means PR people and reporters have to work together,” Andy said.

He also gave his insights about the future of traditional newspapers. He said we could see a future when the Sunday edition of a newspaper might look more like a news magazine that “you would read over the course of a week. Maybe you’d see a three-days-a-week print edition with seven-days-a-week online coverage.” 

Greer creates successful media partnership
The City of Greer partnered with WYFF-TV in Greenville to offer safety tips to residents about the “100 deadly days of summer,” a period when teen drivers have a higher rate of automobile-crash fatalities.

Lt. Randle Ballenger with the Greer Police Department explained how this initial partnership with the television station resulted in an ongoing relationship with the station.

WYFF also shared stories on Facebook Live, garnering thousands of views. The results? Labor Day passed with zero traffic deaths in the city. And the city has the added benefit gaining a positive relationship with the television station.

Community engagement results from relationships
Relationships are also key to engaging residents in what’s going on in the community, according to Lauren Sims, executive program manager with the Town of Mount Pleasant. The town has found success with several outreach programs to engage residents.

“Our research showed our top outreach job should be letting people be heard.” Town staff put together a multiprong strategy to get elected officials and staff out into the community engaging small groups at a time.

“We found people were more willing to talk honestly and engage when they were in a small group outside of city hall,” Lauren said. “This kind of engagement leads to ongoing relationships between city officials and residents, and that’s a win-win” in a city that’s one of the fastest growing in the country.

The town’s approach included coffee with the mayor gatherings, the town administrator’s e-brief and mobile office hours, roundtable meetings with neighborhood and community groups, reading patrol with police officers, and a planning college that teaches the public and people in businesses dealing with planning about the details of this city function. Mount Pleasant has won three municipal Achievement Awards for these outreach programs.

Good relationships with FOIA requests
Relationships also come into play when dealing with Freedom of Information requests from reporters and the public. 

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, and Tiger Wells, the Association’s lobbyist who works on FOIA legislation, reviewed the changes (get a summary of the changes and the updated version of the Press Association’s FOIA handbook).

Through the course of the presentation, both agreed some of the law’s new provisions give requesters and the government entity more guidance and, in some ways, more flexibility in responding to requests.

“Both parties can work together to come to an agreement about when documents will be made available,” Tiger said.

Bill agreed. “Having an established relationship with reporters who are making requests can always help.”

Social media can help government/community relationships
Social media is another way of developing relationships between government and the news media. Meredith Houck, the Municipal Association’s website and creative services manager, shared tips on two social media topics: creating social media policies and using cell phones to take visually pleasing photos for social media. Get her PowerPoint presentation and tips for taking photos.

Get all of the handouts and PowerPoints from the workshop presentations.

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