In the two days before Hurricane Sandy brushed the Peninsula, the number of people who "liked" the Newport News Public School Facebook page grew by more than 800.
Division spokeswoman Michelle Price, one of 14 people in the division whose jobs focus on communications, said the bump appeared to be people who wanted to make sure they were aware of any closures and cancellations caused by the storm. Traffic on the page also increased, she said.
Five years ago, those people would have been dependent on the division's website, traditional news media or a phone alert. Now people expect divisions, localities and other government agencies to use social media, text messages and other tools to share information.
People also want their information quickly, and they want more of it than ever, according to communications staff members.
"People want information immediately," said Ann Stephens-Cherry, Hampton City Schools' executive director of public relations and marketing.
That's as it should be, said Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley. Communications is one of the most important elements of local government and online tools and social media should make it possible to respond more quickly to constituents.
"In 28 years of dealing with all sides, my feeling has always been that it is part of the government's responsibilities to communicate with the public," Stanley said. "They're doing the public's business."
But not every locality or school division has a communications department, or even a person whose full-time job is focused on information. The city of Poquoson and its school division have no communications staff. Instead, the mayor and schools superintendent field questions and requests. The same holds for Gloucester and Mathews County Schools.
Budgets, salaries vary
For those municipalities and school districts with communications personnel, the number ranges from one in Isle of Wight County and Williamsburg to 19 in Newport News. Most Peninsula localities and school divisions have two people fielding phone calls, updating websites, curating social media, sending text messages and answering public queries and Freedom of Information Act requests. Across the Peninsula, annual salaries of public information personnel range from $57,008, for the public information coordinator in Newport News, to $112,360 for the community marketing strategist in the city of Hampton.
Of the school districts with communications departments, budgets range from about $5,300 in Isle of Wight to $1.18 million in Newport News, which includes a cable television station. Newport News Public Schools had the largest communications department, with 14 employees, including six who work for the division's cable channel. Williamsburg-James City County has three communications employees, while the rest of the divisions had 1-2 employees.
For localities with communications departments, Isle of Wight posted the lowest budget, about $95,000, while Hampton had the highest, about $752,000. But Isle of Wight county's spokesman works for the county administrator's office, so his salary of $107,000 is not part of the communications funding. Hampton did not include salaries for the city's cable channel. The seven people in its marketing and outreach department make from $40,875, for a solutions developer, to the the $112,360 of the community marketing strategist.
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