Leaner, Cleaner PR?

Reinventing The City's Public Information Office

Slapped with an un- flattering evaluation of the manner in which it handles and disseminates "public information," the city has been advised to trim down and streamline their operations.

A recent analysis of the Public Information Office (PIO) from Laurey Peat + Associates, a Dallas-based public relations firm hired last August to evaluate the current structure, found that the city's public information efforts are a confused mess, with community education and marketing thrown in here and there. The report speaks to the costliness of the status quo and is pretty frank, in that respect. It recommends that mission statements and job responsibilities be streamlined across the board within a broader "Citywide Communication Plan." Graphics should be standardized to present a unified city government, and the city should avoid the proliferation of "would-be graphic artists" within each department. The study also mentions that the boundaries and separation between community education, marketing, and public information should be more clearly defined but, unfortunately, hardly touches on the subject in any detail.

The report's chief recommendation is to cut nine positions in various public information offices around the city. Individual departments would retain their expert liaisons, but forfeit some staff and rely on the central PIO for more oversight, and staff support. Both the fire department and the central office could also pick up an employee later, but only with council approval at budget time.

In a January 3 memorandum to the city council, City Manager Jesus Garza says he believes that "many of the recommendations should be implemented and allow us to move in the right direction." He also notes that he began reductions last year by cutting five PIO positions for a savings of almost $200,000.

Speaking to the issue of the nine additional cuts, acting Public Information Officer Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez says, "Positions are going to be phased out. Nobody is getting a pink slip... We need to streamline our operations. We're in a time now where we're doing more with less. What we wanted to do was ensure we are giving the customer what they need."

The report also emphasizes the need for a stronger central authority in the city manager's office. That could be helped along, they say, with the hiring of a permanent Director of Communications, a spot left empty by the departure of Ed Clark last year. They warn that "...the absence of a Director of Communications in the central PI Office may make our recommendations difficult to implement." Middlebrook-Gonzalez will be a candidate for the job, which she says has already been posted.

Apparently, Garza is going along with the report's recommendations with regard to personnel cuts, and will likely want the central office to call the shots on what's given out to the public, but he's balking on giving the central office absolute power over all other public information departments. The hybrid system is the best approach for now, he says.

The city apparently went from a centralized system to the current system, in which all departments have their own public information officers, back in the 1980s, because of a perceived bottleneck effect.

The consultants compare Austin with Phoenix, Arizona, and subsequently conclude that "efficient and proactive [PIO] activities have been demonstrated in numerous locations... such as the City of Phoenix." They find that without a unified central authority, public relations is bound to be reactive and unfocused, and propose a system modeled some-what after the centralized system in Phoenix.

Garza's not the only one balking at the study's recommendation to centralize. The criticisms and suggestions within the report have caused unrest (or perhaps nervousness) among some PI officers in other departments like the Electric Utility. According to an Inter-Office Memorandum obtained by the Chronicle, at least one employee has expressed reservations about the report's findings. Elaine Herrmann, a public information specialist with the Electric Utility's community relations office, outlined her concerns in writing to Middlebrook-Gonzalez and Garza.

Herrmann wrote that she believes the study to be just as reactive as the PIOs were said to be. She questioned the wisdom of using Phoenix as a benchmark for Austin's success, and wondered why the comparison doesn't adequately take into account the city's independently owned utility. "If we are interested in cost-cutting, as we say we are, we need to look at the comprehensive picture in an orderly fashion..."

She also asks why Phoenix was defined as "success," and why Austin wasn't looking inward to Austin for what it "needs." "In short, if this was a research paper I turned in for a class, I would probably flunk," she concludes.

"To say it was based solely on a comparison with Phoenix is an inaccurate summation," Middlebrook-Gonzalez responded in an interview. And Cathy Kirwin, who heads up Administration and Community Relations for the Electric Utility, made it clear that Herrmann was speaking for herself and did not represent the Electric Utility.

Perhaps some of the perceived failings of the study may have been caused by the very problems the consultants point out. Laurey Peat + Associates contend that they lacked data that was supposed to have been provided by the city. As the reports states, "These recommendations are being made with the understanding that the data deficiencies that were noted in the report limited our investigation and final evaluation, as did the lack of an efficiency report, which was to have been provided by the city. Our recommendations should be accepted in light of this lack of data."

One particularly glaring lack in the study is a discussion of the sometimes vague line between public information/community education, and city marketing. Certainly the city has products to market and sell, like the utilities' services, for instance, or maybe even caps and T-shirts, but there's a difference between marketing a product for a customer of the city's utilities, and marketing a bond issue up for public vote. For instance, remember 1993's Bergstrom Airport bond issue advertising fiasco? The city hired the Tate/Austin PR firm to "educate" voters on the $400 million bond proposal to move the airport from Robert Mueller in order to build a newer, bigger model at Bergstrom Air Force Base. What started as "public information" and "community education" quickly turned into a pro-bond TV and mailout blitz. The city was forced by the city legal department to pull the ads and mailouts after several complaints from the public about how their city dollars were being spent. And last fall, after the city council was forced by public pressure to put $10 million in bonds for a minor league baseball stadium up for a public vote, then-Parks Department Director Mike Heitz went on what could only be described as a PR tour around Austin's media offices to promote the passage of the bonds and the project. Heitz now claims to have brought both sides of the issue to all the meetings, but in a meeting with the Chronicle editors, Heitz brought only stadium supporters, and even promoted his own idea to include a whitewater kayaking park in the plans.

At around the same time, in what was perhaps a well-intentioned attempt to smooth over a troubling situation, Middlebrook-Gonzalez appeared to turn political advocate when she handled questions from the press concerning Councilmember Eric Mitchell's financial gains from city contracts, because Mitchell pitched a media black-out. The Peat report notes that "a centralized PIO provides support for the Mayor, the City Council and those within their own PIO staff." But Middlebrook-Gonzalez denies that her office acts as a buffer. "We do not speak for the mayor and council offices, we assist them. We do that across the board, but we do not speak for their offices."

Of course, when your city officials announce that your city is going to change how it communicates and disseminates information to the media, and by extension to the public, it's of great interest to the news media. And therefore, the public. Yes, it will be nice to have a more centralized and unified city government information service, but perhaps more important is the issue of a clear separation between an objective government that serves the people, and a city government which has products to sell. The study doesn't go far enough in that respect, barely touching on city marketing issues at all, and certainly not acknowledging the mistakes of the past, which makes it hard to change the future. n

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