Saying they need to do a better job of communicating their priorities to residents, Hilton Head Island leaders are considering hiring an on-staff communications officer.
“I just think we need to do a better job of communicating the town’s priorities and initiatives with our citizens,” Mayor David Bennett said Tuesday night after a town council meeting. “We’ve been trying to do that with the help of a third-party firm — based out of Charleston — and I don’t think it’s anything against them, but I don’t think that’s meeting our expectations overall as a council.”
Currently the town uses the Charleston public relations firm Rawle Murdy. The town primarily communicates to residents through meeting minutes, email blasts, social media updates and the town web page. Information must now go to the firm and then be sent to council for approval before it is ever distributed to the public.
That system puts the town behind the information curve, Bennett said.
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Ideally, the on-staff communications officer, if approved by council, could be on board by the end of the year, Bennett said. Since the discussion is in an early stage, he did not have a salary range.
Council member Kim Likins said a communications officer could sit in on all council meetings as well as go to other town meetings and report back to the public.
“I would certainly be in support of it because we just continue to have a lot of issues that come out of some of our initiatives. ... And we struggle sometimes to get out ahead of the message and communicate effectively and efficiently with our public,” she said.
Council member Marc Grant said a communications officer would be good, but he’s not sure if it’s right for the town now.
“My question is: Is that a top priority of all the things we’ve got going on?” Grant asked. “I just don’t want us to get too far ahead of ourselves.” He expressed concerns about the effect the position would have on the budget.
Bennett said the Town of Bluffton does a good job communicating with citizens in a “timely, insightful” way.
Bluffton’s web page says the public information office creates a “two-way dialogue” between leaders and residents. They communicate through their website, social media, media releases, surveys, public meetings and citizen engagement workshops.
Debbie Szpanka, Bluffton’s public information officer, said she handles developing PR strategies and procedures and reports to the town manager. She also manages the town’s Freedom of Information Act program and acts as a “dispatcher” with colleagues to gather information.
Bennett believes a similar position on the island would help.
“We’re operating nowhere near that speed,” Bennett said. “So unfortunately, in that vacuum, sometimes alternative messages are being conveyed by other parties, and that makes it kind of difficult to adequately convey what I think represents the truth.”
Last November, Beaufort County schools made a similar proposal to hire a video and social media staff to beef up their communication efforts. They hired a media production coordinator on March 29 to create videos for the Beaufort County School District’s YouTube channel.