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.
The City of Newport News, which also runs a television station, has no communications or public information department, according to spokeswoman Kim Lee, who works in the city manager's office. Nineteen people in various departments, including police, fire, libraries and parks and recreation, act as public information officers and fold education and other duties into their roles. The number also includes NNTV's six employees. The salaries of people who are communications-related personnel range from $30,320 for a television production assistant to $95,983 for the assistant to the city manager, who also handles communications duties.
Communications departments have shaved personnel and assumed additional duties, such as print, graphics and mailroom functions, said several spokespeople. The city of Hampton has two positions vacant in its seven-person department. Stephens-Cherry absorbed marketing for the division's athletics department into her cluster of departments. The move eliminated a position.
Price said her division has cut back printing, publication and postage costs by posting information on the website and Facebook and using electronic pay stubs and internal blogs. "There are a lot of savings," she said.
Demand has grown
But while budgets and staffs have shrunk, the public's demand for information has grown, said spokespeople. In addition to phone calls and email messages asking basic questions or seeking comment, cities, counties and school divisions are fielding more Freedom of Information Act requests, staff members said.
Lee said Newport News residents expect greater accountability and access. "When your position is being paid for with taxpayer dollars, you have to step it up a bit," Lee said.
She sees that as a good thing and a way of fostering better interaction between city staff and residents. Citizens can post questions on Facebook or the city's website and receive answers quickly, Lee said. Social media also allows localities to broadcast emergency information to a wider audience.
Stephens-Cherry said there is more pressure to be transparent, especially when dealing with negative news.
"The word in front of communications should be 'open'," she said. "We try to tell people what we did wrong and how we plan to fix it."
VPA's Stanley thinks localities and school districts can do more. "Governments can post a great deal of information on their websites and then direct the public to it. That should alleviate a lot of the routine, mundane requests that come to larger localities."
She said most of the state's population "doesn't have a clue about government websites," but localities and divisions can train citizens to use such tools as a go-to information source for public records and information.
Price said NNPS has been doing that for the past few years. Three years ago the division launched a budget blog with a response form on the website.
"People could ask questions and get a response," she said. And if the same question kept coming up, staff members "knew we needed to address those issues."
She, Lee and other communications professionals said people comment on and question posts on Facebook pages, and even begin "conversations" among the posters.
"We can put up a post and get an almost instant reaction to it," Price said. "It allows us to know what members of the public are thinking."
But the demand for information is not confined to social media or websites. People still call. Stephens-Cherry keeps her cell phone active at all times and said it is not unusual to get a phone call at 1 a.m., or one at 6 a.m., "and I am expected to respond."
Lee said local governments must stay ahead of communications trends and anticipate their constituents' communications and information needs. "In the next five years I cannot even imagine what will be available as far as communications avenues. We have to keep that in mind."
Want to know more about communications departments and staff, including budgets and salaries? Visit https://docs.google.com/open?id0B1n_U5QC2121bHJMU1dVQlF1N00.
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