County departments building relationships with media

  • Written by  Kelsey Sutton, Savannah Tanbusch, Michael Sykes, Jon Banister, Alexis A. Goring
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media relationsLANHAM –– While some county departments have developed successful methods of communicating with local residents and media outlets, other offices have struggled. 

The Prince George’s County Police Department recently received accolades from the Washington Post for its media relations department. 
“Our mission is to make sure that any media members who are covering anything get the information that they need in a reasonable amount of time, that it’s accurate, and that we do the best we can do make their job easier,” said Julie Parker, the department’s director of media relations and a former television reporter. 
The county police along with the county executive’s office, the fire department and state’s attorney’s office, responded to requests to discuss media relations with reporters, but other departments did not return calls. 
The Sentinel contacted the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office seven times to discuss media relations with Sharon Taylor, director of communications for the office, but was misdirected to the non-emergency number for Public Health and Safety. Despite leaving two messages with Taylor, the reporter did not receive a response. 
Similarly, the Prince George’s County Office of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. A reporter was told the public information officer was out for the week and would respond when she returned. 
Officials from the departments that did respond said understanding the needs of the media, utilizing social media and developing a rapport with reporters are key to getting the job done. 
The Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, the police department and the Prince George’s County Fire Department all said their offices should be a “one-stop shop” for reporters. 
“As a former journalist, I understand there is a certain language…and certain elements that go into a story,” Parker said. “We do our best to try to get all the elements together.” 
Parker has been running the media relations office for the police department for three years after leaving television news. She runs the office “like a newsroom,” she said. 
“To keep up with the media, you’ve got to work at their pace,” she said. 
The County Executive’s office employs similar strategies, said Scott Peterson, spokesman for County Executive Rushern Baker III. 
“Everything is about time,” Peterson said. “Everyone is on a deadline.”
Peterson puts his cell phone number on every press release, adding to his accessibility, he said. 
“Having my cell phone number out there as much as I can is something I want,” he said. “That way, not only can the media get me at any time, citizens also reach out to me.”
County Executive Communications Manager Barry Hudson said being responsive to media inquiries works best. 
“I think our focus on responsiveness has paid us dividends and been good for reporters,” Hudson said. “By helping them, and getting them the information that they may need or want, that responsiveness serves as a form of good will. It also gives us the perception in the newsrooms and organizations that we’re pretty transparent.” 
John Erzen, communications director for the State’s Attorney’s Office, said the most important thing is understanding what reporters need. 
“If we want them to come to something, [we are] making sure that we’re giving them enough notice,” he said. “A lot of times, TV stations like to have a piece of paper they can put in their daybook, so we try to make sure we can email them something.” 
Hudson said the County Executive’s Office spends time giving reporters story ideas. 
“We spend a lot of time pitching stories, talking about all the different things in the county,” Hudson said. “We know that no news organization knows everything that’s going on in every corner of the government.” 
Mark Brady, public information officer for the Prince George’s County Fire Department, said he visits newsrooms to develop and maintain relationships with reporters. 
“Know your news outlets and know when everybody’s deadlines are,” he said as a suggestion to other public relations offices. “Meet those deadlines at all costs.” 
Parker said her relationship with reporters is “robust.” 
“There are some reporters I speak to every day,” she said. “We’ll get together for lunch, and we don’t just talk about work—we’ll talk about our families.” 
Many departments have also incorporated the use of social media.
The police department has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Vine, in addition to emailing press releases to reporters and maintaining an online blog. Parker said she began these initiatives as soon as she took her current position. 
Other departments have followed suit. 
The fire department and the State’s Attorney’s Office use Twitter as a tool to disperse information to the public. 
“When I tweet about an incident, the media trusts my tweets,” said Brady. “They recognize my handle on Twitter and they know that it’s me putting out that information and it’s good information.” 
The State’s Attorney’s Office tries to update its Twitter account daily, Erzen said. 
“Mainly, it’s through the emailing of the media alerts and the press releases and getting as much out on Twitter as we can,” he said. “After we send that out…we’ll pick up the phone and call various reporters, various assignment editors and just talk about what’s going on, make sure they understand the information that we’re putting out to pitch it to them, to help with coverage.”
For Parker, the job is a customer service profession. 
“We understand the challenges reporters are up against,” she said. “By and large, we have accomplished a lot here.”

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