Editorial: New "Media" Policy For Town Of Carolina Beach

By / Editorials / Tuesday, 02 April 2019 17:18

By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
Managing Editor

On Monday April 1st, Sheila Nicholson - Administrative Assistant to the Town Manager of Carolina Beach - sent an email to area media titled, "Media requests for information and interviews-Town of Carolina Beach".

Nicholson wrote, "Beginning the week of April 1st , the Town of Carolina Beach will implement a new procedure to process day-to-day media inquiries. Any media requests for interviews or information are to be submitted to me via email (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or phone (910-458-2995)  by 1:00 p.m. on Mondays. On Tuesday of that same week, our Town Manager and staff will make themselves available in person, on the telephone, or via email between 4:00 p.m. - 4:45 p.m. to answer submitted questions. Exceptions will be made for critical incident and other emergency related matters."

She explained, "This practice is designed to accommodate our busy staff and effectively provide media professionals information and interviews on a regular schedule. If you have any questions about the new information request process, please contact me. We thank you for your cooperation as we implement this new system, and look forward to continue working with everyone."

I personally responded stating, "I've never had an issue with calling or emailing staff and Town Managers since I began working at the Gazette in March of 2001. There has always been a two-way open line of communication. I'll continue to email Town staff and management when information is required to inform the public about their local government. Thank you for your Public Service..."

Nicholson responded, "I think there may be a misunderstanding of the intent of the email, and an error on my part in not clearly drafting the correspondence. The Town is piloting a new initiative to test a communications strategy. We are not closing lines of communication nor limiting the time we are willing to speak to the media. Our goal is to provide dedicated times that staff are easily accessible to media inquiries on a weekly basis in addition to general availability for standard media requests."

She explained, "For non-critical/non-emergency articles, our preference is to respond on Tuesdays.  For stories requiring a quicker response time, feel free to reach out to Lucky or Council as needed. This policy in no way changes that."

The media has an obligation to promote transparent government and inform the public as promptly as possible. Government has an obligation to be as transparent as possible and Carolina Beach has a pretty good  record of being transparent.

If Town staff is claiming they are struggling to answer media requests in a 24-hour news cycle then perhaps it's time to hire a dedicated Public Information Officer. The Town use to have such a position and it worked perfectly.

And news flash, media went into a modern 24-hour news cycle over twenty years ago (or more counting CNN on cable TV before the internet became mainstream). Prior to that, daily papers operated on a similar schedule, often with morning and afternoon editions. Television news has for many decades operated on a fast paced news-cycle often morning, noon and evenings.

As to a "misunderstanding of the intent of the email" sent out by the Town, it was absolutely specific. It even included a definite schedule and single point of contact and contrary to the follow up explanation that it would not restrict general availability, the original statement was in fact clear, "Exceptions will be made for critical incident and other emergency related matters".

The media will continue doing their job. We either get information and quotes from officials or we tell the public that answers were not available within a reasonable amount of time and continue seek out those answers by any means necessary and legal.

One of the most important aspects of public service is answering the public and in turn, the media that informs the public.

I would urge the Town Council to discuss this in detail, in the open, during the their April 8th meeting. The public and the media deserve to hear that discussion.

While the Mayor and Council are regularly available, there are times when they don't have the answers and direct media to contact Town staff and management.

Over the years I've rarely had an issue obtaining information from Town staff at any local government in New Hanover County. I say rarely because it happens from time to time, and there's always more than one source.

Local media in large part is not only here to serve the public trust, monitor and hold government accountable, we're here to help local governments communicate with the public. Our doors are always open (Actual doors during regular office hours and via phone and email usually 24 hours a day).

In the spirit of communicating new policy changes such as this, it would be an excellent move on the part of the Town to host a media day so everyone can get together, chat informally, and then have structured discussions about our roles and how we can make all of our jobs easier to perform on a daily basis.

Simply rolling out a new pilot program that generated concern among media - and media coverage - was admittedly not written clearly enough to convey the new policy. The Town should have first reached out to the media to organize a round table discussion in a casual setting.

At the end of the day, the media will continue to ask questions, we will get answers, or we will continue to seek those answers until the public is satisfied and informed. Basically, we'll keep doing our job. To serve the public.

I'll wrap up this editorial with this statement: With all due respect. Nothing personal to those with whom I have very trusting relationships. Some spanning many years. This isn't an opinion directed at any particular person working for the Town of Carolina Beach, it's about the "policy". The people I interact with on a regular basis in our local  government do a great job and are very responsive and do their jobs extremely well.

This Town has made improvements over the years in their efforts to improve communications with the public and when this policy was released, it generated concern among local media - and rightfully so.

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