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Pittsfield Crafts 'Formal Press Protocol'

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
03:12PM / Tuesday, July 01, 2014
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Pittsfield has instituted a new media protocol.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — If there was a formal policy in talking to the media, Mayor Daniel Bianchi says he didn't know about it. 
 
Since taking office, some department heads were contacting him looking for guidance in handling media inquiries. Others had no reservations. 
 
"It was all over the board. Some department heads would do one thing, others would do another. ... It was a real mish-mash," Bianchi said on Tuesday. "There was no real sense of protocol."
 
Media protocols are used by many organizations, and Bianchi said he wanted to establish one to help department heads know what to do.
 
Director of Administrative Services Julia Sabourin, whose job description includes "acting as the public information officer," crafted a policy and sent it to department heads as an internal memo. Local media were not aware of it until the issue was raised by local blogger Daniel Valenti last week. Valenti has raised concerns over media access to department heads.
 
The two-page memo asks for written press releases be sent to the mayor's office two days in advance. These would be releases that introduce a new program, information about an upcoming event, updating the progress of a city project and highlighting ongoing events and programs.
 
The memo also says that "when a release needs to go out on the same day, put ASAP on the header of the email."
 
The releases are asked to be sent to Sabourin with the details of where and when.
 
A section referring to "phone calls and sound bites" tells the department heads to provide information on "routine topics," which include maintenance projects or city-run programs. However, if the topic is about a "new or unresolved topic" then the department head is asked to contact the mayor's office.
 
"We do want to run things through my office to make sure the message is consistent," Bianchi said, adding that with new programs sometimes there is additional information he can provide.
 
In both a section for requests to appear on television or be interviewed, the mayor's office asks the department head contact Sabourin.
 
According to Sabourin, there hadn't been a formal policy before but that many believed "everything went though the mayor." Sabourin's job includes "acting as" the city's PIO but says she serves much more in administrative roles than in communications. 
 
"The only real change is in phone calls and sound bites," she said, saying the written protocol gives more freedom to department heads than having everything go through mayor's office first.
 
She added that the mayor's office would like to know afterward what the topic and media organization is in case they want to add something. For "unresolved topics," for which Sabourin used the Housatonic River Cleanup as an example, the mayor's office wants to be informed first to clarify the city's opinion. 
 
"It is important that there is a unified message when we are taking about ongoing issues," Sabourin said. 
 
That aspect hadn't changed from the way the city departments in general were operating, she said. "That isn't new."
 
Both Bianchi and Sabourin say the intention was never to stifle information but rather to just create a protocol of how to handle such cases. Sabourin said she received calls nearly daily from department heads unsure of how to respond to different requests.
 
"If there was a protocol, it wasn't terribly defined," said Bianchi. "We thought it was reasonable to put on paper."
 
The city's protocol does not appear much different from that of Chula Vista, Calif., which designates its department heads as spokesmen but requires all employees to inform its public information office of inquiries.
 
Sabourin's memo is below:
 
Dear Department Heads,

Over the last 30 months I have been impressed with the determination and ambition that departments have illustrated in promoting their important work to the public by way of local media. While not everything makes it into the newspaper, or on a local station, the effort that you demonstrate on a daily basis underscores your commitment to your job, your department and the residents of Pittsfield. With that said, I am hoping that by establishing a more formal press protocol within City Hall, we can streamline our process and become more efficient about reaching our residents using the press and social media.

Written Releases:

Informative press releases are to be directed through the Mayor's Office. Releases should be sent two days in advance. For example:

Introducing a new program
Releasing information about an upcoming event
Updating the progress of a City initiative or project
Highlighting ongoing events or programs occurring in the City of Pittsfield

In extenuating circumstances, when a release needs to go out on the same day, put ASAP on the header of the email. This will increase the probability that the release is reviewed and released on the same day.

Press releases that identify the where and when can be emailed to jsabourin@pittsfieldch.com for immediate release. For example:

One day road closures
Reminder of time and place of an already established event (e.g. "Just for Kicks" will meet tomorrow, in Clapp Park at 9:00 am)

Phone Calls and Sound Bites

When asked for information on a routine topic, provide a sound bite and then email or call Julia Sabourin about the nature of the discussion and the name/contact information of reporter you spoke with. Examples of routine topics:

Update on a routine maintenance project
Commenting on a City run summer program

When asked for information about a new or unresolved topic, please first call or email Julia Sabourin for guidance. You can also direct the reporter to contact Julia Sabourin.

Television Reporters

When asked to appear on television, contact Julia Sabourin through email or phone. If you need and immediate response, first call Julia Sabourin; if you cannot get through, call Sue Santolin.

Interview/Appearances

When asked for an interview or to make an appearance, contact Julia Sabourin

If you are ever in a position in which you do not feel comfortable speaking with a reporter, or you would like my direct input, contact Julia Sabourin for assistance.

Tags: city hall,   news media,   

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