Disinformation officer

Hand delivery: Sheila Edwards, DeKalb PIO

See update below.

It’s easy to underappreciate the Public Information Officer.   When they do their jobs well, they make their bosses look good and draw no attention to themselves.  But when a PIO screws up, it’s like when a surgeon screws up.  Somebody gets hurt, and a lot of people notice.

PIOs inherently have the desire to control access and information.  Yet the release of info and the granting of access isn’t always subject to the posted schedule, the timetable, the boss’s lunch hour or meeting schedule.  Especially when the boss is an elected official running one of Georgia’s largest counties.

Sheila Edwards is the PIO for DeKalb Co. CEO Burrel Ellis.  Thursday she provided a stark lesson on how to make her boss look foolish.

It started with an embarrassing question that Ellis apparently wasn’t jumping up-and-down wanting to answer:  Why is DeKalb County on the brink of furloughing rank-and-file employees, while Ellis and other government higher-ups aren’t taking furloughs?

It’s a reasonable question.  If you’re Ellis, or his PIO, there’s a legalistic answer that the public or media may have trouble swallowing.

But Ellis is a grown man and a skilled politician.  He’s making tough budgetary decisions.  He’s smart enough and quick enough to give an answer on the fly.

It appears Wendy Saltzman posed the question to Edwards a day earlier and requested an interview.  Based on their exchange on the raw tape, it sounds like Edwards stalled with an answer.  (Saltzman reports she made three interview requests.)  Saltzman and photog AJ Willen showed up at a DeKalb County employees event and ambushed Ellis.  This irritated Ellis a little, but it irritated his PIO a lot.  Here’s the raw video:

Update: Dekalb Officers Speak uploaded the video to Youtube and is also blogging about this incident.  Check it out for the comments alone.  Lenslinger has also blogged about it.

Make fun of WGCL’s “tough questions” all you want — and we all do — but this was a reasonable question on Saltzman’s part, and it demanded a timely answer.  If she gave Ellis a day’s grace to provide an answer, she cut him more than enough slack.

Foot in the door, head in the lens

The ambush itself was classic.  Saltzman stepped between Ellis and the door through which he’d intended to escape.  She blocked the door with her shoe, and politely yet firmly asked Ellis the day-old question.

And Ellis answered.  But as Ellis was answering the question, the PIO was throwing a fit in front of the camera lens — blocking it with her hand, blocking it with her face, blocking it with her hair.  Later on, she blocked it with a piece of cloth.  Ellis’s answer — that state law required that elected officials take no furloughs  — became the audio background for the on-camera tomfoolery of his public information officer.  Oops.

And who gets the last word on this stuff?  Maybe the TV station.  Maybe the CEO, when he realizes his PIO made him look like a chump.

But probably not the PIO, whose job is to anonymously facilitate the flow of information.  Not block it with a cloth, or a hand, in front of a rolling camera — thereby hand-delivering an absurd story about government stonewalling, when a timely, honest answer would have served her boss much better.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form, zero, zilch, nada. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

29 thoughts on “Disinformation officer

  1. burke brennan

    I was there. It was not a DeKalb Commission meeting, rather a Leadership DeKalb Class that happened to meet in the same room. The speech Ellis had just given was about the DeKalb County budget, which included some of the give and take about furloughs.

    Caveat: I used to be the Spokesflack for DeKalb County during CEO Vernon’s tenure. I left that post in 2006 for another career in county gov’t. So I am not speaking on behalf of Ellis or the county.

    Having said all that, I thought Saltzman was way over the line. Since Ellis was talking about it anyway, she could have put her mic on the lectern and asked her question and behaved in a civilized manner like everyone else who was here. She did not. She waited for him to make his exit, then rushed him. Why wait?

    The general consensus of the class (of about 50 of us in attendance today) was shock and disdain. It looked, to us, that the reporter was engineering the outcome of the story with the bum rush. As you mentioned, there is a perfectly rational explanation that most reporters that have covered government before already know: Consititutional officers – all of them – have their salaries set by state law that they themselves cannot change. Not even the CEO of DeKalb County

    I would like to think Saltzman would have known that before she picked up the phone the first time, or at least before she induced her desired response. Because if you take away the hand in the lens, its an anchor-reader in the C block at best.

    Reply
  2. DeKalb Officers

    Saltzman was right on line. Probably no fault of Ellis, but Edwards denied the interview that was requested in advance. Edwards behavior was despicable.

    Simply a power trip on Edward’s part. 10 to 1 Ellis never knew of the request by Saltzman for the interview. We believe Ellis is smarter than that and would have gladly given a prepared interview.

    If Ellis doesn’t release Edwards of her duty, then he is a fool. But it goes back to how much Burrell owes Representative David Scott. After all, Shelia Edwards did work for Scott before Ellis.

    Reply
  3. Element

    Without that “PIO” this whole thing goes down differently, the way I see it. He seemed amenable to answering reasonable questions, but crazy intervened.

    Reply
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  5. mike daly

    CEO Burrel Ellis might still sit down with Ms. Saltzman to answer that question. I remember his leadership even before he was CEO and I voted for him. He’s a smart guy and capable. If the perception of the class members was that the reporter was engineering that outcome, so be it. Ms. Edwards took the bait then, and fed into it. PIO 101 – even the phrase “No Comment” gives the perception of hiding something. Covering the lens with hanky and hand is worse.

    Reply
  6. Jim

    Saw it last night…that was classic! Whether Saltzman “ambushed” him or not, the way the PIO acted was inexcusable.

    I know what she was going at with the hand in front of the camera, and even the scarf, but what in the world was with the peering into the lens like that??? That looked really, really bad.

    As for her asking it during the Leadership class, tha’ts her call. I’d also point out that, if, as you say, the event was OVER, there was no good reason for him not to stop, take two minutes, and answer the question. He does that, and nobody looks like an idiot.

    The truth is, Edwards got between the lens and the subject, which, in photog land, is right up there with getting between a mamma bear and her cub.

    Now here’s what I want to see happen. I want GCL to prove themselves worthy of being called the no longer last place station by EXPANDING on this and doing some real reporting. Check with the state-find out if the DeKalb officials really have no choice. If not, then ask the state why, and is anything being done to change this. Find out what other jurisdictions are doing, and let us know.

    The alternative is to just re-air the Saltzman incident over and over and over, which is probably what will happen, and WSB or WAGA will end up actually reporting the story while WXIA continues testing salad shooters.

    On an entirely unrelated note, Chesley McNeil may be the best thing that’s hit Atlanta TV in a long, long time. He’s great!

    Reply
  7. burke brennan

    To be clear, I’m not defending the hand in the lens. Further, I recognize the value of aggressive journalism when warrented.

    The Atlanta water bill stuff? Seems to be valid to me. Huge story, millions of dollars, tens of thousands of residents adversely affected … and weeks of stonewalling. I get that. The gravity of the story justifies the unseemly technique which also happens to be sensational video.

    I’m probably late to the party on this issue because I’ve been out of it for so long, but it seems that employing the bum rush as standard operating procedure is counter-productive to the already tarnished image of mainsteam news. Especially for a run of the mill story which – giving Saltzman the benefit of the doubt here – may have been unvetted. As previously stated, its set by the state.

    So again, you take aways the melee, you don’t have nearly as good of a story. So why provoke it, unless the desired result is to create TMZ-style promos. And if that is the pre-planned outcome, can you really call it news anymore?

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Burke — Always a pleasure to hear your perspective. I’m pretty sure you never stuck a hand in a lens while PIO for VJ. And I certainly never heard you say “don’t answer the question” as we hear Ms Edwards saying on the raw WGCL tape.

      I think the bum-rush is accepted SOP only when the subject declines or stalls formal interview requests. That appears to be the case here.

      As WGCL reported, other constitutional officers, including Mayor Franklin and most state legislators, have found ways to voluntarily furlough themselves. So it’s reasonable to ask Ellis about it.

      “So again, you take away the melee, you don’t have nearly as good of a story. So why provoke it…” you ask. It’s a good question, best directed at Ms. Edwards.

      Reply
  8. Sammy

    The only “story” here [more entertainment than snewze worthy] is that the senior staff of elected officials don’t have enough sense not to act like asses in public and while on camera.

    I’m lovin it! Thanks WGCL46AlantaCBS

    Reply
  9. Charles Edwards

    There are a lot of unknowns here. Did Edwards (no relation!) have a reasonable explanation as to why Ellis could get back to the reporter by her deadline?

    How many times did the reporter ask for the interview? I’d just like to know more about all this.

    Reply
  10. LoFlyer

    Burke, in case you haven’t kept up with current events, 90 percent of rank and file county employees know your man, Mr. CEO has done more to run the county into the ground than any politician in DeKalb’s history. From the sleazy rape charge to the his security team running unauthorized GCIC checks on Dale Russell, his security team running counter-surveillance against the DA’s office. His manipulation of human resources to require all professional/technical positions have worthless college degrees and terminating all of the purchasing department to install “his people” with said degrees and refugees from Atlanta city government. His use of revenue allocated for yearly employee raises to avoid raising taxes for expensive bond issues resulting in employees making 20 percent less than their local counterparts? At the same time he obtained a whopping 50 percent raise for himself? What was Vernon secretly doing at the Athens Olympics when Hicks committed suicide? Getting laid? In short your working for this lying sack of dung brings serious questions as to your ethics, credibility or intelligence.

    Reply
  11. gilgirl

    Wendy asked several times for the interview. She asked the day before and the day of. When no one responded she went to the county office to wait for the man.

    Dekalb County is known for their game playing and a PIO who is not media friendly.

    Reply
  12. Ben Garrett

    I’ve been on both sides of this–as a reporter and as a PIO–and this PIO should be permanently furloughed. She managed to make her boss look bad when her simply shutting up would have potentially enhanced his image. Then, maybe her boss doesn’t realize that, and she made points (job security) with him.

    Reply
  13. Stephanie Ramage

    Wendy was doing her job and, as usual, she did it superbly. I wish there were more reporters like her. If there were, our First Amendment rights would be much more respected and government in Georgia would be much more open. Thank you, once again, Wendy. Well done. –Stephanie Ramage

    Reply
  14. English major

    Seems like Wendy could very easily have found the information she was looking for with a little online research and simply reported it, without taking the confrontational approach. But she is not the only reporter who chooses to go for the cheap, self-serving shots in the guise of doing a “public service.” Having said that, the PIO did not handle it at all well, and played right into her hands. I’m sure we’ll be seeing that piece of footage in GCL’s news promos ad nauseum.

    Reply
    1. Element

      “Found” the information she was looking for? The information she was looking for was an answer to a question that only the CEO could give. When the CEO or his PIO refuse to answer the questions, after repeated requests, it is the job of the Fourth Estate to get the answers. He, or they, refused to answer the questions( I suspect because they knew their answer was ethically wrong).

      How is getting answers from the people who govern, wrong? Their “public service” is to answer to us, the people. The job of the media is to seek the answers and let the people decide. How the answers are obtained is moot though, believe it or not, no one wants to go to these extremes to get the answers. Dekalb is known to stonewall by all media outlets. I’m just glad that someone in this town has the fire to get answers!

      Reply
  15. Sam

    Wendy was NOT doing her job, or at least doing it well in forcing a confrontation with an elected official over such a bland issue. Not cutting edge at all. If you expend such tactics over such miminal issues then, when the really important issues come along, you’re already spent reputation wise.
    Yes, the PIO was very bad and needs to be looking for a new line of work, along with some new medication possibly.

    Reply
    1. Element

      “If you expend such tactics over such miminal(sic) issues then, when the really important issues come along, you’re already spent reputation wise.”

      The tactic is getting answers. Very simple- the easy way or the hard way. When they refuse to do it the easy way, Wendy comes to them on her terms. All the proper channels were followed, prior.

      Do you have any idea how many passes are given on the “minimal issues”? That time has passed. Government has run amuck for long enough.

      Reply
  16. Sam

    Element,
    People don’t have to answer Wendy’s questions just because she wants them to. Resorting to such ambush tactics, again for such a minimal issue (and it was), will ensure that Wendy fails to get other similar interviews – one’s reputation in this industry is everything. “The easy way or the hard way”…. sounds like a line out of a Clint Eastwood movie.

    Reply
    1. Element

      You’re right and, no, they don’t have to answer her questions. However her boss says she has to ask them. THAT is the way this industry runs. I also know that this is not the preferred tactic of (most) anyone, including Wendy. Sometimes this is just the way it has to be done (and it was). Furthermore I don’t think Wendy has anything to fear concerning her reputation.

      Clint Eastwood? Yes. Have you seen their “Tough Questions” leather jackets? Cheesy? Very. But that’s kinda their style. Right or wrong.

      Reply
  17. livetvman

    As a person who works in the T.V. news industry, no one has any respect for what this reporters are doing. What they are doing is not journalism? This P.I.O. was just stupid to fall for their trap. Just smile and let them make asses of themselves, trust me, the rest of the Journalism world is laughing. They are a JOKE!

    Reply
  18. English major

    The Georgia State code can be found online, where it is posted as a public service for us taxpayers and resourceful journalists: http://www.lexis-nexis.com/hottopics/gacode/default.asp.
    It addresses the issue of furloughs for public officials.

    By the way, Element,”how answers are obtained” is not moot if the method is self-serving, as it was in GCL’s case. I don’t see anyone there disclosing that their tactics are as much about ratings as they are about public service.

    Reply
  19. Steve

    I think that blame could be shared between Ms. Satlzman and Ms. Edwards.

    Both of them came off to me as being belligerant.

    Ms. Edwards could’ve acted more professional than she did. The camera blocking, IMHO, was totally uncalled for.

    Ms. Saltzman, on the other hand, should’ve appropriately backed off.

    Reply
  20. Element

    I respect the candor of all the comments. And I’m not saying it was ideal turf for either of them. I certainly think the debate is worthy. But we’d both have to be there to understand every variable. It could have went down more gingerly, by any account.

    Reply
  21. wgcler

    Today the CEO agreed to accept a pay cut as part of the new Dekalb plan. There’s no question that the CEO never planned to do this until he was asked repeatedly by Wendy. If he had he would have said so last week and repeated that yesterday during his interview with wendy.

    Wendy got action. She did real n ews that actually helps people.

    Reply
  22. Pete Smith

    Appropriately backed off???????? Steve, you will be the first one to ask where we were when the most important corruption story comes up or where we were when something happens that, “we should have known”. Mr. Ellis knew the score when he ran for office. No one drafted him. He should know the score now when he makes the decision about whether or not to keep someone on his staff who clearly doesn’t know her job or how to do it. This is one of the worst examples I’ve seen in almost 25 years in television. As for Miss Saltzman, sometimes that’s just what it takes. The trick is to know when it’s required and when it’s not.

    Reply
  23. Looking for Faith

    I think what is most disturbing is that Ms. Edwards is not just a PIO, but the Director of Communications for the entire DeKalb County Government and in charge of overseeing several other department PIOs and Communications staffers.

    She behaved in a way that was absolutely unacceptable, yet she keeps her $120K a year salary. It is disgraceful, and I really am troubled why someone who seems as bright, and elegant, and genuinely interested in making good choices to better our county as Mr. Eilis appears doesn’t see that. Why would he allow her to continue to represent his office, the rest of the county government, and the constituents of DeKalb County?

    Where are his political advisers, and why haven’t they been able to weigh in and convince him he needs to make a change.

    Reply
  24. juanita driggs

    Burrell is saavy, bright and well aware that the CEO is media fair game especially these days. Burrell needs to do better in the ambush mode. Burrell can start by finding a new, well “seasoned” PIO.

    Are Wendy Saltzman, her young, ambitious colleagues and 46′s “Tough Questions” a little over the top at times? Yes.

    Is 46 vying for a higher ratings and employing edgy tactics to do it? Obviously.

    Is Juanita and her neighbors now watching 46 a lot more than the usual tired three? Absolutely. That’s the name of the game folks.
    And yes, Doug, Dagmar is still hot, hot, HOT! And her weather ain’t too bad either.

    Reply

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