Right now, it’s budget time for Guilford County government, which might not mean much to you (until you get your tax bill!) – but, for me, it means attending a ton of budget meetings until the commissioners adopt the final 2017-2018 budget in mid June.
One thing I’ve been hearing quite a bit about in all these meetings I’ve been going to is whether or not Guilford County should hire a public information officer – aka a “PIO” – in order to get someone in there who can help portray Guilford County government in a better light.
This would be someone who’d basically be the “PR” person for the county. He or she would put out news stories telling citizens what Guilford County is up to and would keep people informed about county government.
Now, when you read that, you are probably thinking: “But, Scott, why would we need to add a new position like that? Isn’t that exactly what you do? Don’t you bring us the news on the county and let us know what’s going on?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do.
However, the county wants someone else who will – well, quite frankly, put a more positive spin on the news and portray the county in a more favorable way.
Apparently, the Rhino Times and other area media outlets don’t always couch the county’s actions in a positive light. We tend to focus on the negative; or so they say. For instance, if the state comes in and shuts down the Guilford County Animal Shelter because of widespread animal neglect and abuse, and the county also has a highly successful aluminum can recycling program that same week, the negative-minded media would likely give more ink to the former story.
But some county officials feel they need someone who can spin the magic sauce into the emperor’s new clothes so those clothes will be viewed with rose-colored glasses. (And they certainly don’t want a Peeping Tom pointing out that the emperor is naked.)
You know, don’t focus on higher taxes – instead, talk about the new services those taxes will fund. Things like that. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a great idea: The PR person would be like a bizarro Scott Yost who takes negative stories and makes them very positive.
There are a lot of things we’ve written about over the years that were kind of negative, I admit, but if the county had had a PR person to handle the spin, there would have been a totally different vibe to those exact same stories. Here are a few examples so you can get an idea of what’s to come …
Actual story #1: THE NORTHEAST PARK KIDDIE TRAIN WON’T RUN. The kiddie train at Northeast Park has cost taxpayers a half-million dollars (and counting) – yet the train has never run for any length of time even though the county has been trying to make that happen for five years. The train jumps off the tracks, won’t start, you name it. It can only sit there while sad school children walk past it teary-eyed as they ask their parents, “Mommy, Daddy, why can I never ride the pretty, fun choo-choo train?”
OK, now that sounds pretty bad because lots of places operate a kiddie train without the project approaching the same difficulty level and expense of a NASA moonshot; however, with a little innovation and a good public information officer, the story has a whole new vibe …
County Press Release from PR person: GUILFORD COUNTY ANNOUNCES GRAND OPENING OF AMAZING NEW HALF-MILLION DOLLAR ‘IMAGINATION STATION’ KIDDIE TRAIN ADVENTURE RIDE!
On Saturday, June 17, kids of all ages from all over Guilford County are invited to come out for the grand opening of the new spectacular, one of a kind, ‘Imagination Station’ Kiddie Train Adventure Ride.
Five years and a half-million dollars in the making, Guilford County spared no expense on this magnificent “Train Ride to Anywhere,” the new adventure at Northeast Park. This is considered by experts to be the safest, most energy-efficient amusement park attraction in the world – an amazing stationary train ride!
Lots of places have trains that slowly move people around a park where there’s nothing much to see, but Guilford County is now the only county on Planet Earth with the new cutting edge stationary train ride that teaches kids to use their imagination!
Instead of an old-timey, noisy, fuel-guzzling bumpy train ride, on this ride kids will board the train and close their eyes while a large fan creates the illusion of movement and recorded train travel sounds played over a speaker system complete the experience. With their eyes shut aboard the county’s kiddie train, this will allow them to imagine the train is traveling to anywhere in the world. They can let their minds run wild! Perhaps your child will imagine he or she is in a luxury car chugging toward Istanbul on the Orient Express, or maybe he or she will choose an exhilarating mental ride on an old Wild West locomotive through dangerous Indian territory.
“This is a game changer,” said an ecstatic Robert McNiece, the county’s facilities and parks director who is also in charge of trains.
“And the safety is unparalleled,” he added. “Reports from parks around the country reveal that 98 percent of kiddie train related accidents occur while the train is moving – but the beauty of our train is that it is completely stationary, making it the safest train in the country.”
“It’s also the greenest train ride,” McNiece said proudly. “It uses literally zero fuel – only the small amount of electricity it takes to operate the fan and the stereo system.”
So kids, buckle up – next stop … Imagination Station!
So, you see how we kind of turned that story on its head and made it much more positive? Well, if the county gets the right person in that job, he or she can basically do that with any story.
Like, this …
Actual Story #2: OLD GUILFORD COUNTY COURT HOUSE IS FALLING APART AND COULD KILL CITIZENS. Last year, the Rhino Times reported that, due to decades of neglect and improper maintenance, the center of county government was falling down like London Bridge and it would take an estimated $8 million to fix. The county has now put up ugly protective scaffolding around the building to prevent citizens from being killed by falling debris. We are lucky no county employees have been killed: One time a giant cinder block crashed down on a second floor toilet stall where many high-ranking county officials frequently do their business.
Now, while that’s how I wrote the story, if you were the county’s PR person, what you’d want to do is take that lemon and make some lemonade. It might go something like this …
County’s Press Release: GUILFORD COUNTY OFFERS FREE “HISTORIC SOUVENIER DROP” AT OLD COUNTY COURT HOUSE FOR ALL COUNTY CITIZENS.
Come one, come all! Bring the entire family and gather ‘round the old court house in downtown Greensboro for the historic Super Souvenir Drop! Kick the building anywhere on any side and in no time a little – or big – piece of history is sure to fall off for you and your family to have and cherish forever! Every falling chunk of this stately building is dripping with history and is yours to keep. (Note: Remember to run, duck and cover after you kick the building.)
Built in 1919, this five-story “Renaissance Revival” court house, designed by famed architect Harry Barton, has been the home to Superior Court sessions, housed the offices of some excellent county leaders and it has even served as a den of thieves. This Super Souvenir Drop is our way of saying “Thanks!” for being such great citizens.
Actual Story # 3: GUILFORD COUNTY SOCIAL SERVICES DEPARTMENT HAS STUNNING SECRET BACKLOG OF 8,200 BENEFIT APPLICATIONS – A DEBACLE THAT COULD COST THE ENTIRE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA ITS FOOD STAMP FUNDING.
This was a very big one. In 2013, media reports revealed that the Department of Social Services, under former Director Robert Williams, had been, for months, sweeping applications under a rug (actually, stuffing them in drawers and behind file cabinets) rather than processing them, and the department had accumulated a backlog of 8,200 applications. After the scandal broke, with amazing effort and at fantastic expense, the county got caught up in time to convince the federal government not to pull the food stamp program out of the entire state.
County Press Release: GUILFORD COUNTY DSS CLIENTS GET SUDDEN WINDFALL OF BENEFITS!
In wonderful news for citizens of Guilford County who receive food stamps, Social Services Director Robert Williams announced today that about 8,200 individuals and families can expect to receive a special one-time handout of months of benefits in one lump-sum payment!
County officials are extremely pleased that Williams and his staff are able to offer struggling families the payouts that are much larger than DSS clients in other counties are getting this month.
“We are very excited about this opportunity for Guilford County DSS clients to get these large lump-sum payments that, quite frankly, are nothing less than a money bonanza,” a glowing Williams said Monday. “In some cases, the lucky clients will get nearly a year of benefits in one day!”
(Williams noted that the back benefits designated for clients who had already starved to death would go to their next of kin.)
So that’s all easy enough and, come to think of it, this is a lot more fun than writing all that negative news all the time. It’s also really pretty easy: All you have to do is accentuate the positive just like it says in the song. You know, instead of, “County pays $8 million for a DSS High Point building that sold for $100,000 in the ’90s,” the county PR headline can be, “Some county property values increase 80-fold overnight.” Instead of “Say Yes abandoning scholarships payment promises,” the story would be, “New Say Yes initiative teaching students self-reliance!”
Remember, it’s never what you did; it’s how you spin it.