Wednesday, August 30, 2017

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.

Lt. Paul Vance
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 later this 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.”
Andy Shain

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.

Lt. Randle Ballenger
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.

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
Lauren Sims
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

Tiger Wells (l) and Bill Rogers
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
Meredith Houck
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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lots of economic impact in 2.5 minutes next week

There will be lots of economic impact packed into a few minutes next Monday when much of South Carolina experiences the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse.

With spectators coming from around the world, some 140 South Carolina cities and towns are positioned to offer a memorable weekend followed by an awe-inspiring few minutes. Get a list of what some South Carolina cities have planned and read this Columbia Business Monthly article to find out what several small towns are doing.

In preparation for the approximately 2 ½-minute event, the Municipal Association’s Risk Management Services staff has offered a number of safety tips cities should consider when hosting large crowds.

If the city is sponsoring a free public viewing event, make sure there is some shade and cool beverages. Consider hiring a vendor to manage or support parking, traffic and sanitation efforts. Coordinate with public safety officials and logistics organizers. Security should be heightened, considering the recent attacks seen around the world. Minimize outdoor construction and maintenance activities on the day of the eclipse, since the event is expected to attract additional onlookers and travelers on the city's roads and properties.

Individuals planning to watch the eclipse should be careful. Looking directly at the sun with the naked eye or through an optical aid can be extremely dangerous, and there is only a brief phase, "totality," when the moon completely blocks the sun during which onlookers can remove their glasses.

Take the following steps:

  • Check for local information on the timing of when the total eclipse will begin and end. NASA's page of eclipse times is a good place to start.
  • Don't stare at the sun. It's too bright for the eye.
  • Research and purchase special-purpose solar filters, "eclipse glasses" or hand-held solar viewers. Make sure the glasses are certified. Some have been recalled as unsafe.
  • Smoked glass, X-ray films, sunglasses and camera filters, for example, are all dangerous and should be avoided completely for viewing.

Despite the warnings, there are plenty of ways to safely enjoy the eclipse. For detailed information on the path of the eclipse, maps, merchandise and more, visit this webpage.

SC Educational Television and Public Radio will be covering the eclipse live on television, radio and live streaming. Get links to previous stories looking at the safety of glasses, emergency preparedness, traffic, photography during the eclipse and more.


Friday, August 11, 2017

'Tis the season ... to start planning for the 2018 session

By Casey Fields, manager for municipal advocacy

It’s August - time for the once in a lifetime solar eclipse and time for the Municipal Association’s annual Regional Advocacy Meetings. Don’t miss either this year. You don’t need protective eyewear for our meetings, though.

Jump in the car with your fellow local officials and hit the road for an advocacy meeting near you. We’ve scheduled them so no one should be more than a 90 minute drive from one of the meetings.

We will share a good meal, some fellowship and talk politics. I loved seeing everyone at Annual Meeting. Regional Advocacy Meetings are just another opportunity for us to gather and keep up the momentum after such a great meeting in Hilton Head.

The Regional Advocacy Meetings start on Tuesday, August 15, in Myrtle Beach at the Historic Train Depot. If you haven’t already registered, do it now. The discussion and information are important, but we also serve up a good meal of local fare. We always try to use city facilities and local caterers to show off the city where we are meeting.

We will open up the meetings by looking ahead to big issues for the 2018 legislative session. Our staff will update on you on the progress with business licensing legislation, and we will talk with you about what’s on your mind about issues in your city or town. 

Advocacy staff will also go over important bills that passed during 2017 such as changes to FOIA, municipal elections and the state pension system.

This is not a lecture-style meeting. It’s a discussion among us, you and each other. Designed to be fast-paced but thorough enough to walk away with some good information, the meetings help us plan next steps for the months leading up to the new session in January.

I know you are busy. I know you have a lot of other responsibilities including running your city and protecting your residents. But this time together is important.

Register now for a Regional Advocacy Meeting. Don’t miss the opportunity to tell us what’s on your mind and hear what new laws are in place. I can’t wait to see your smiling faces! Never too soon to start planning our strategy to advocate for strong cities and towns in our General Assembly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A $13,000 Lesson

By Tiger Wells, Government Affairs Liaison

The meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. This is a central and typically uncontroversial tenant of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act

As is usually the case with general rules, however, there are exceptions.

For any of six reasons outlined in the Freedom of Information Act, a public body may go into a closed session. Five of these apply to municipal government. Before entering executive session, the public body’s presiding officer must announce the specific purpose of the executive session according to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Two years ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court made it clear that the words “proposed contractual matter,” for example, do not satisfy the specific purpose requirement. In Donohue v. City of North Augusta, the North Augusta city council was found to have violated FOIA when it invoked Section 30-4-70(a)(2) of the S.C. Code of Laws and stated that it was going into executive session to discuss a “contractual matter.” 

Now, just two years following that opinion, another public body has been admonished by a lower court for a similar violation. In a recently issued order out of the Newberry County Court of Common Pleas, Newberry County Council was found to have violated FOIA by holding closed meetings without sufficiently announcing the meetings’ specific purpose. 

According to the court’s order, meeting minutes from one of these public meeting indicate that the announced purpose of the closed session was “the receipt of legal advice where the legal advice relates to a pending, threatened, or potential claim or other matters covered by the attorney-client privilege.”

Noting first that this description amounts to a partial reciting of the exact language of Section 30-4-70(a)(2), the court concluded reciting the applicable code section “in such a general way” constituted hiding the specific topic of the executive session. As a result, the public body was found to have denied the public its right to know what was being discussed, and ordered to pay $13,708.63 in fees and costs.

Through the Donohue case, the S.C. Supreme Court pointed to an example of how not to go into executive session, but stopped short of articulating precisely what form the statement of specific purpose should have taken. If this most recent case advances at least to the state Court of Appeals, it will be interesting to see if South Carolina’s appellate courts seize this opportunity to give more concrete guidance.