City adds new spokespeople for public outreach
There was a time when citizens sent typewritten letters to city officials through the mail, expecting a reply in a week’s time. Those days, city manager Martín Bernal says, are long gone. With the barrage of email inquiries and the expectation of an immediate response, coupled with the emergence of social media, what was once considered a luxury for local government, he says, has now become a necessity.
“The way communication happens now is very different than the way it used to be,” says Bernal. “People want to engage the government through more than the traditional ways.”
Seeking to improve the city of Santa Cruz’s engagement with the public, city leaders established a community relations manager position within the city manager’s office in early May, and appointed Keith Sterling to fill the position. The community relations manager is the head of a loosely connected group of three other communications specialists working at the Department of Public Works, the Water Department, and the Santa Cruz Police Department, which is still in the process of recruiting its own communications specialist (partly as a replacement for former police spokesperson and current County Supervisor Zach Friend).
The combined salaries of the community relations manager and the three specialists come to a total of $354,474 with about half of the money derived from the city’s general fund and the other half from enterprise funds. But this begs the question: is there truly a need for three new outreach workers?
“In reviewing their priorities and goals, the city council added community engagement as a sixth goal to our strategic plan,” Assistant City Manager Scott Collins states in an email to GT. “Bringing professional communication specialists on board is a key action to meet the council’s goal of improving outreach and communication with the community.”
But activist Ron Pomerantz feels that civic engagement already comes in the form of boards, committees, and commissions, which are meant to scrutinize the city council and staff. Pomerantz believes that the funds used for the community relations specialists could be better spent elsewhere.
“These are superfluous positions,” says Pomerantz, retired firefighter and former city council candidate. “This is like middle-management kind of pay, and my bias is that we should support the work that is essential and needs doing, and I don’t see how PR people do that.”
When looking to create a new public relations system, Bernal and others looked to model the position after cities with similar programs, like Boulder, Colorado.
“We looked at other governments trying to find what the good examples are out there,” says Bernal. “We learned from a variety of communities.”
The main contrast between Boulder’s model and the structure that the city adopted is in the number of specialists. Given its smaller government, Santa Cruz chose to employ specialists only in bigger departments like water and public works. The community relations manager will serve the departments that lack a dedicated community relations specialist.
Although many municipalities in the country do have similar community relations functions, the city of Santa Cruz is the first and only city in the county to employ a group of public servants solely dedicated to community outreach.
“I think we’re the first to do it in the county, but it’s not so unusual when you look at cities across the country and certainly across California that have a similar kind of structure,” says Bernal.
In fact, Santa Cruz’s community relations manager, Keith Sterling, worked as a public relations manager in two other cities prior to his move to Santa Cruz.
“This is familiar territory for me,” says Sterling.
Sterling has ambitious plans for his role at the city. In addition to his day-to-day responsibilities of connecting with the media and advising the various department heads in ways of public engagement, Sterling is in the process of conducting a communications audit of the entire city government. Sterling will examine the existing state of the website, social media, internal communications, media relations, crisis communications, branding and marketing with a fresh set of eyes in order to bridge the gaps in community relations that he perceives.
“There are gaps, but I see them as opportunities,” says Sterling.
For example, Sterling wants to create a monthly newsletter for citizens that highlights the major initiatives and projects the city is undertaking, and includes community events.
“People are busy,” says Sterling. “They are busy with their lives, and it’s hard to communicate with them, and we don’t want to only communicate with them in an emergency or when there’s a major problem. We want them to know about the positive things going on.”
Eileen Cross, communications specialist at the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, is no stranger to communicating the good with the bad. Cross, who is the veteran among the communications specialists, has been in charge of telling the public about water issues, including desalination and the city’s water restrictions, for just over a year.
“My goal early on was to try to help the department get some credibility back with the community,” says Cross. “They had lost some credibility, and it’s really a fabulous department with hardworking, passionate people.”
Extra outreach from the Water Department may be a welcome relief to some desalination supporters. Many people criticized the Water Department—most recently in a grand jury report released last month—for not better communicating its water woes to the public last year while discussing a since-tabled desal plant.
When it comes to Public Works, the city’s largest department, city officials felt that the department also required a communications specialist, especially considering that most public outreach was previously performed by engineers, who often speak a language all their own. They appointed Janice Bisgaard, whose current projects includes a photo blog, which will feature all of the 233 Public Works employees.
“The hope is to really paint a picture of the heart and soul of our team,” says Bisgaard, who was hired in May.
Public Works Director Mark Dettle points to the recent publication of more prominent public works-related stories in the local media as an indicator that Bisgaard is helping the department in its goal of effectively telling its stories to the public.
“Having her understanding of how the whole media works has really helped us to get our message out,” he says.
Brad Kava, long time local journalist and chair of the Journalism Department at Cabrillo College, feels that although it is necessary for governments to convey its messages to constituents, certain aspects of public relations can be troublesome.
“Government tries to control the message by filtering everything through these PIO’s [public information officers], and I think that can be negative,” Kava says. “It puts a spin on the message rather than getting to the truth.”