The acronym “PIO” stands for Public Information Officer, which most people would assume means their duties would include providing information to the public. Sometimes, though, journalists feel like they intentionally withhold information we want to get to the public.
Regardless of their title, we rely on these people to get us timely, accurate information.
Our journalists have built strong relationships with most of the individuals in these positions and a majority of the people in this role – past and present – have proven to be exceptionally good at providing what we need when we need it.
There are a few in this position, though – past and present – who were exceptionally good at doing the exact opposite. Their role has become pure PR.
San Ramon Valley Unified School District, for example, changed the job description for its “Coordinator, Communications and Public Information” position just last month. One of the new essential functions of the role is to work “collaboratively with members of the media in accordance with the District’s Media Relations Guidelines for the purpose of establishing functional and supportive relationships and promoting accurate media coverage that supports the District’s reputation and image.”
The emphasis on image as opposed to accuracy in this district became apparent about a week after the board of trustees approved the new language. We called for information about a safety issue and were misled at best and flat-out deceived at worst, probably because the accurate answers to our questions would not support the “District’s reputation and image.”
In December 2021, there was a “challenge” issued to students on a social media platform to take a gun to school. (Yes, we are just as appalled as you, but that’s beside the point.) Around noon on a Friday, we started receiving messages that there were reported gunshots at a local high school. First, we heard the school was locked down and within minutes we heard students were told they could leave campus.
Our reporter Jeanita Lyman immediately called the district’s PIO and asked if gunshots had been confirmed and if there was a lockdown, evacuation or early dismissal from the school. The reporter was told it was “all rumors” – there was no credible report of gunshots and there was no lockdown, evacuation or early dismissal.
Our publisher, Gina Channell Wilcox, happened to be less than a block away from the school at the time. She took photos of the dozens of students walking from the school and even talked to a couple of the students – one of whom said they’d been told it was “OK to leave.”
Jeanita called the district PIO back and said she had seen photos of students leaving the school; again the reporter was told it was all rumors and students were not being released.
It wasn’t until the reporter said the photos had been taken by the publisher who was less than a block away from the school – not just random Facebook photos – and that Wilcox had talked to students that the spokesperson admitted that, yes, some students were afraid and asked to leave school.
Wilcox later reached out to the district’s superintendent, Dr. John Malloy, to discuss the need for open and honest communication to develop trust between the district and the media and community. She was told it was a miscommunication because the reporter didn’t ask the “right” questions.
We have had PIOs from school districts, police departments, municipalities and other publicly-funded organizations ignore multiple phone calls for comment or information only to have them call us after publication to tell us we had incorrect information (most of which is debatable) or chastise us for being “biased” for publishing without a statement from them.
We have had PIOs go through great lengths to keep information from us when we submit public records requests – to the point of us telling them we know there are non-exempt documents they claim don’t exist because we have copies of said documents.
It frustrates us, of course, because we’re human and don’t like to be misled, but primarily because we know readers rely on us to provide timely, accurate information. We can only publish verified information and often we need PIOs to give us that verification – regardless of whether or not it supports an organization’s “reputation and image.”