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Dr. Ted Flickinger

Public Relations

Board members should not fear the media

by Dr. Ted Flickinger, CLP IAPD Executive Director

As organizations funded by the public, it is critical that we secure and maintain the confidence of the public. A public relations program is one of the most effective ways to gain public understanding and appreciation. Combined with good programing and quality facilities, good public relations is the key to getting and keeping a positive reputation in your community.

Public relations comes in many forms. It can be as simple as inviting your legislators to attend a special event, to the more complex issue of handling a barrage of media calls after an accident has occurred on park district property.

Commissioners play a major role in an agency's public relations. Productive public relations means forming relationships, especially with your key publics—taxpayers, elected officials, government representatives, community groups, business leaders and, of course, the media.

These relationships can be fostered through a variety of means such as forming advisory committees, hosting public hearings, seeking citizen volunteers, effectively handling citizen complaints and practicing sound media relations.

As a board member you might on occasion be called upon to make comments to the media. You should not fear the media. Following are a few thoughts to keep in mind when working with the media.

•Become informed about your agency. Learning about your agency's services, goals, current legislation and the dynamics of your community will help you be a better spokesperson.

• Learn and live by your agency's policies and procedures for dealing with the media. Know who on staff is responsible for day-to-day media relations.

•If you receive an unexpected call from a media representative, it's not always necessary to respond immediately. Before making a comment (especially when it relates to a controversial issue), it is most important that you have all the facts. Tell the reporter that you need to get more information before you can accurately comment on the issue.

•On the same note, don't use this as a stalling technique to avoid the issue. In most cases, ignoring the issue will only make it worse. A bad story will linger days, even weeks with the media if they know you are dodging an issue or hoping it will go away.

•Be polite to reporters, despite their actions towards you. Remember reporters work under the stress of strict deadlines. They are paid to be persistent. Treat them with professional respect

•Designate one or two board members as official media spokespersons. In addition to the executive director and/or a designated staff spokesperson, specific board members should be prepared to

6 * Illinois Parks & Recreation* September/October 1995

interact with the media, when necessary. Most often the president is called upon to serve in this role. If the president is not comfortable in this position consider another board member who is willing and qualified. Your interests will be best served by a spokesperson who is comfortable dealing with the media and takes his or her role seriously.

• Once official spokespersons are designated, arrange a meeting with the executive director and appropriate staff to discuss media procedures and policies. It's also helpful if the executive director can share with the spokespersons a history of the agency's media relations activities.

• It doesn't take a crisis to make the news. Whenever you have a chance, tell the media about the "latest and greatest" program at your district. Board members are excellent ambassadors.

• Educate members of the media. In most markets, reporters cover several 'beats,' so they cannot be experts on everything. Share your expertise and educate the media about the field of parks and recreation.

• Treat all reporters equally. Turnover rates among reporters are high. One day a reporter may be covering the overnight shift at a small radio station and before you know it he or she is anchoring the 10:00 p.m. news.

• Remember nothing is "off the record." Although in many cases a reporter's motives may be pure, do not agree to comment off the record.

• Adopt a crisis communications policy. No matter how hard we try to alleviate disasters, accidents do happen. Before crisis strikes, discuss procedures for dealing with it. For example, who will be involved in formulating the official statement, how will they be reached when needed, who will announce the statement and will the executive director be available to answer technical questions? The more prepared you are the better the image you'll present.

lAPD's Commitment to Public Relations

Illinois park districts are considered leaders in the local delivery of park and recreation services, achieving national recognition for excellence in park district planning and programming. The IAPD is also recognized as a leading organization working to advance the park district system in Illinois and the United States.

Despite the quality and efficiency of services provided by Illinois park districts and forest preserves, they are under intense scrutiny by the media, legislators and the general public simply because they are taxing units of government. We are experiencing a nationwide trend:
an anti-tax, anti-government climate. The tax cap issue—even with its recent clarification by Governor Edgar through the signing of SB368—remains a challenge to quality public parks, preservation of open space and natural resources and recreational areas.

In addition, there is a general lack of understanding and awareness by these publics (media, legislators, general public) for the tremendous positive impact park districts have on the economy and quality of life in our communities. Even when this public benefit is recognized, some consider park districts a "frill."

The long-term and essential benefits gained from park and recreation services that are offered by local park districts and forest preserves must be recognized. It is one of lAPD's top priorities to aggressively communicate this message to the media, the legislature and the general public, and to help our member agencies do the same at the local level.

IAPD offers tools like the Timeless Message poster series (see the inside back cover of the magazine). We recently hired a full-time public relations director, Laura Seymour, who will provide our members with public relations tools and consultation. Let us know how we can help you tell your story at the local level.

Illinois Parks & Recreation* September/October 1995 * 7

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