Don't expect a city's public information officer to follow a strict schedule for the day — or even the next hour. News breaks, a social media feed blows up, reporters call for interviews, and soon the items on the PIO's calendar are scrapped in favor of pressing developments to address.
Batesburg-Leesville Assistant Town Manager Seth Duncan appears as Forrest Gump for the town's Halloween celebration. Photo: Town of Batesburg-Leesville.
Consider Seth Duncan, the assistant town manager of Batesburg-Leesville, who counts public information officer among the job responsibilities he juggles. A little more than a year ago, a call from the state health department late in the afternoon confirmed a case of West Nile virus in the Lexington County town. Duncan got busy. Within an hour, he prepared a news release and compiled an information packet to be hand-delivered to more than 1,000 homes and businesses the following morning.
"I am proud of that moment because I had very few details or first-hand knowledge of West Nile virus to go on, so I had to study and write quickly to provide the public with a clear understanding of the dangers and proper response procedures," he said.
Communications officers in cities and towns, large and small, around South Carolina have similar stories of instances where they had to quickly react to keep the public informed. But while the daily schedule for a PIO is never set in stone, they say that's part of the job's appeal.
"I like that I'm never quite sure what my day is going to be," said Katie Quinn, the communications manager for the City of Rock Hill. "Being a PIO requires a great deal of flexibility. Most days, my to-do list ends up with more items added than get crossed off. You just have to do the best you can, delegate when possible, prioritize and reprioritize as new things pop up. The city's tagline is 'always on,' and that definitely applies to this job."
Katie Quinn, communications manager for the City of Rock Hill, worked closely
with reporters during the BMX World Championships. Photo: City of Rock Hill.
Quinn said most of her workdays start with checking local news websites to keep up on any coverage related to the city. She and her two-member staff manage the city's website and social media, and she is the main point of contact for journalists, often connecting them to appropriate staff members for interviews. The public information staff is responsible for the local visitor website, video projects including recording and airing city meetings, creating publications, organizing press events and managing the Rock Hill brand.
Communications professionals also take on roles of marketing city events. For example, when Rock Hill hosted the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships, much of Quinn's time for the year and a half leading up to the event was devoted to marketing and communications. Now, her office is overseeing the branding and marketing for the new, free fixed-route bus system that will launch in April 2019.
Like other PIOs, Quinn is constantly checking and responding to email and city social media accounts. This is certainly true for Duncan in Batesburg-Leesville.
"My typical day usually starts at o-dark-something," he said. "My phone is the first and last thing I see each and every day. Before my feet touch the floor I check my town email, review the town's social media accounts and try to get a sense of how my morning might start. After this I head to the office where I try to arrive 30 or more minutes before the rest of our town hall staff. I use this quiet time to respond to overnight emails, social media posts and put out any fires that may be raging. From there the day can go in a number of different directions, but typically I have time to work on special projects, assist departments heads, deal with personnel issues and other tasks."
In McCormick, Police Chief Bo Willis also serves as the department's public information officer. He said the media relations and communications part of his job has changed tremendously in the years he's been with the department.
"When I first started, there was no Instagram, no Facebook, no LinkedIn. There was just the newspaper and the radio stations. Radio used to be one of my favorite outlets for getting stuff out, but the radio is not into local news anymore," Willis said. "Now we have social media, and we have to keep an eye on that all the time. We monitor it because people will put out whatever they want. I need to have a grasp of what's out there and if they say something wrong, I correct it, tactfully. I try to make everyone stay informed and up to date."
Ryan Johnson, too, said his job as the North Charleston PIO is a balancing act — combining the planned initiatives the city needs to push with monitoring and reacting to the news and social media channels.
The City of North Charleston's Ryan Johnson appears on ABC News 4's Lowcountry Live!
Photo: City of North Charleston.
"Truthfully, any of it can change at any point," Johnson said. "You never know what you're going to be doing. There can be some new, exciting thing to get out in the public, and conversely there's undoubtedly something negative you have to respond to."
He said a challenge for PIOs in local government is figuring out ways to engage the city's residents. For example, he said municipal communications staff can be responsible for reaching out to residents and convincing them of the importance of getting involved or attending a public hearing. It's not always an easy sell.
"We're updating our comprehensive development plan. It's hard to get folks interested in this stuff," he said. "We produce all these nice videos, but getting people interested in municipal topics is a challenge."
Johnson echoed other PIOs on how social media has changed the job and work hours. "People want information when they want it, and you have to provide it to them. You have to be able to adapt. Government was some of the last to adopt any social media. We have to adapt and implement new technologies. We have to know the audience and where it's going. And you have to retain the traditional stuff, too. You have to reach different people in different forms, broadening the spectrum of ways to convey information."
That's a common comment from municipal communications officers.
Duncan, who estimates 10 percent of his job as the assistant town manager in Batesburg-Leesville is spent on his PIO duties, said the job has grown and changed substantially in his three years.
"At first, the job was to simply update the Facebook page and occasionally write a press release. All of this changed as council began dedicating more and more resources to ensure the town's message was reaching the people," Duncan said.
Today, Batesburg-Leesville uses nearly a dozen different tools to engage residents and build relationships to ensure the town's message breaks through the noise to reach its audience.
"The job is more than just playing on Facebook or Twitter," Duncan said. "It's about developing a voice for the community and being able to build trust. A competent public information officer is essential for growing and thriving communities. Ultimately, PIOs help tell the community's story, provide facts and reassure the public during times of crisis."