A Look Inside The County's 'Ministry Of Truth'

A SECOND LOOK

June 16, 1991|By Darren M. Allen

When the County Commissioners announced their grand reorganization plans, their Public Information Office swung into high gear.

Or make that low gear.

The press release was the office's strongest point, and it wasn'tall that strong -- a brief affair, written in nebulous language, with stock quotes from the commissioners, that ended before it even began.

Attached was a series of organizational charts; pretty neat, except that there weren't any old charts to give the recipient of the "information" packet any context.

And, to top it off, most public officials -- including the commissioners -- were somehow unavailable for comment most of the day.

Read on to learn how not to run a Public Information Office.

Now you must realize that reporters and public information people are naturally antagonistic. Our job is to get as much information as we can, and their job is to release information in such a way as to make their bosses look good.

But while I would commend the public information staff of a privately held company for keeping as much from me as it can, I can find no reason why the information office of a government should be in the business of releasing only selected tidbits.

In fact, Carroll Public Information Director Micki Smith has said that she believes her job is to provide basic information -- that is, just enough. She thinks that if reporters or the public want more information, it is their duty to ask the right questions.

I disagree.

Now, I know what some in government might be saying.

"Your newspaper doesn't let the public in on editorial meetings. You don't disclose the reasons behind corporate decisions. You don't disclose your salaries."

To them I would say, "You don't get the point."

I work for a private-sector company, accountable to a group of stockholders, not the public. And while I think it is good for an influential organization such as a newspaper to be open to its readers, it is ludicrous to draw a parallel between us and the government.

The government's reorganization -- or any action ofthe elected County Commissioners -- is the type of event that warrants public scrutiny. Whether anyone at 225 N. Center St. wants to admit it or not, it is the public that pays government salaries.

Mine is paid for by Times-Mirror stockholders.

In the case of the reorganization, the public wasn't informed until decisions had been made; in fact, most of the commissioners' own employees didn't know of the new structure or where exactly they fit in.

And why the commissioners decided to announce the overhaul through a hastily written, incomplete news release rather than a joint news conference is beyond me.

I'm not saying I wanted the story handed to me on a platter. But when decisions made behind closed doors by elected officials that willaffect more than 800 workers and $150 million in

public money areannounced, a bit of explanation is not too much to ask for.

The commissioners -- and department heads, for that matter -- would have benefited from a news conference. Throughout the day, reporters from every media outlet in the county sought private interviews. A news conference would have alleviated the burden of repetition on those officials.

Even without a news conference, the announcement of the reorganization could have been handled better, from all points of view.

The commissioners, directors and key employees could have at least been on hand, ready to explain the motivation behind their decisions.And the public information staff could have done better than providethe "you know as much as we do" rhetoric -- or at least be in the office for more than minutes at a time.

(Smith was in meetings for agood part of the day.)

I'm not trying to paint the Public Information Office as incompetent. Indeed, the staff there often pulls through in the nick of time with very specific, hard-to-find facts just minutes before deadline.

But, in this case -- or any other case where the commissioners want to control the flow of information to the public -- the office has a long way to go.

Because, no matter what the commissioners want to think, no matter what the agency directors or workers want to believe, the public deserves more than vague generalities from North Center Street.

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