Failure to communicate
City Hall's ban on staff members speaking to media leaves us all underserved
Published: September 7, 2011
And maybe now that controversial Communications Director Karen Dumas is gone, and former television news anchor Emery King has been brought in as a consultant, the administration will realize that it is in everyone's best interest to see reporters as something more than a nuisance to be swatted down.
The recent return of the City Hall bureau to its traditional 11th floor perch near the mayor's office is, at the very least, a smart PR move by the administration.
In our experience, Greg Bowens, who served as a spokesman for the Dennis Archer administration, was usually able to find the right balance between providing accurate, timely information and a positive spin. So we called to get his take on the matter.
At the heart of the issue is this: "City communications sometimes requires uncomfortable positions," he says.
Sometimes reporters are seeking a response to a story that doesn't make either the city or the administration look particularly good. That's reality.
Bowens, who now runs his own public relations firm, believes that transparency reduces some of the inherent antagonism. Easing regular access to info, he says, is also a key.
"There's so much routine information that sending out a memo like that [from the Bing administration] will cause a bottleneck and really have the opposite effect. You will lose control of your message."
Part of the issue involves the person at the top, and how comfortable they are dealing with the press.
Kirk Cheyfitz, a former urban affairs reporter for the Detroit Free Press, found the often-combative Young to at least be accessible.
"When I needed to talk to the mayor, I could almost always get him on the phone," he recalls. "And when I couldn't, his schedule was always publicly available. You could call his political aides and find out where he would appear in the next 30 minutes because the mayor was almost perpetually in the business of talking to people."
Cheyfitz, who has written about the city most recently for Huffington Post, has followed with particular interest the Detroit Works Project, the mayor's ambitious replanning of the city and arguably the cornerstone of his entire term.
Having covered both Young and Bing, Cheyfitz says, the difference in openness between them is stark.
"In all the interactions I had while trying to do reporting in Detroit," he says, "I kept coming into conflict with Bing press operations. They didn't want to talk, they wanted to supervise interviews, they didn't want to make [Bing] available, they wanted written questions."
Lack of transparency has been a common complaint among those associated with the Detroit Works Project. Angela Allen, a former senior project manager in the Education Outreach Department for the project, believes the all-important dialogue between the city and citizens to be substandard.
"Community development is based on honesty and relationships. That sounds cliché but having been through this before, I know that community leaders just wanted some transparency," she says.
Allen says she saw firsthand how city employees were told to keep some information private, and speak publicly only on issues that received clearance from supervisors. "You can't have transparency when people aren't allowed to express themselves and communicate openly with the people they serve."
Lijana, the administration's sole point of contact for the press, believes such concerns are overblown.
"It's pretty simple," Lijana says, referring to the directive. "It's really just a matter of keeping track of the information and making sure our people have the right information."
Lijana feels the directive, issued before he became Bing's chief spokesperson, is fairly standard in city government. "There's nothing out of the ordinary about it," he insists.
But when we checked with nine cities around the country, ranging from some of the largest to those with budgets comparable to Detroit's, all had communication systems that were more fluid.
In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio, all or most departments have their own public information officers.
Philadelphia's press secretary, Mark McDonald, says his city's PIOs "have expertise on their department and are trained in public relations." They keep the mayor's office abreast of particular media inquiries, especially those that might require sensitive information, and tend to develop working relationships with beat writers.
For smaller cities, the public relations staff is necessarily more centralized. Yet of the smaller cities we checked with — Fort Worth, Charlotte, Baltimore, Toledo — none admitted to having a directive with the same level of strictness as in Detroit's.
Charlotte, for example, has a considerably more lenient policy. "We realize that reporters like subject experts," says Keith Richardson of Charlotte's Communications Department. "We encourage members of our staff to give interviews with the media and we do not have a rigid protocol for handling media requests." After hearing about Detroit's media directive, he added, "If all calls came through [my office] it would really overwhelm us."
Our guess is that's exactly what's going on here, at least in part. Lijana is being overwhelmed.
But if other cities can take a more expansive — and efficient — approach, so can Detroit.
Bowens suggests training city employees in media relations would help.
"Teach people how to be effective communicators with the press. ... You don't prevent them from doing that by putting your foot on their neck so they can't say anything,"
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