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:
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.
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.