By Shereen Siewert | Wausau Pilot & Review
It wasn’t too long ago that a cutting-edge city hall communications team could boast about sending out press releases by fax.
But times have changed, making the city communications landscape nearly unrecognizable from just a decade ago. Legacy local news outlets have imploded, digital outlets have cropped up in their place. New social media platforms keep appearing as well, and the never-ending news cycle can put city leaders on an exhausting treadmill.
To address this new reality, Wausau’s Human Resources Committee next week will review a proposal by Mayor Katie Rosenberg to add a communications officer to the staff to send “a centralized message to outside entities,” according to a public agenda.
“As the City has grown and [sic] complexity, the mayor feels the City needs a Communications Officer,” the agenda reads. “Today, the flow of information is critical and when there is not one consistent message from the city, problems can arise.”
Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7 on the Wausau City Council, said Wausau has struggled with consistent, coordinated communications “for at least the last three administrations that I have witnessed.”
“Whether that is media response, press releases, public information and engagement, social media, newsletters and the like, there is no one good point of contact for timely, accurate messaging,” Rasmussen told Wausau Pilot & Review. “There is value to that, but the person in that job cannot be expected or allowed to become a gatekeeper either where requesters can’t get access inside the organization but for that person. Requests where certain knowledge and expertise are needed must be handled and worked by the technical people in the organization who know, even if the communication person would handle the release of those answers once prepared. I would see this person operating in a non emergency communication role, and they cannot be a replacement for us as elected officials to respond to and communicate with the media and the public.”
Human Resources Director James Henderson said if the committee approves the proposal, the decision will then move to the Finance Committee and then to full council.
According to city documents, the salary range for the position is between $56,617 and $84,905. Neither Mayor Rosenberg nor City Finance Director MaryAnne Groat responded to questions about total cost to taxpayers including benefits, and Henderson said he had no additional information to offer because the proposal was so early in the process.
Rasmussen said the position would likely be taxpayer-funded and would require a budget modification if funding is needed in 2023.
But wait, isn’t social media enough?
Wausau has had a number of communication challenges in recent years, with multiple departments posting public information solely to social media sites rather than issuing a formal press release to news organizations. That, say many public relations experts, is a mistake.
“In this age of digital media where most news is gathered from the internet, it can be easy to assume that distributing your company’s news via social media alone is adequate—but news distributed solely on social media may not get the attention it deserves,” said Rosalia Scampol, of Ragan PR Daily. “This is not to downplay the power of social media, but for many companies, social media channels may not be enough to deliver important messages to the right audiences. A press release not only validates online content, it can serve other purposes that a brief social media post cannot.”
By posting solely to social media, the city’s messaging can be lost in a tangle of ever-changing algorithms, and reach only users who are on a specific channel, such as Facebook, at precisely the right time.
In some cases, the city’s messaging has been unclear, with conflicting views offered by different departments. This was the case after PFAS chemicals were detected in Wausau’s drinking water, when Wausau’s website offered cautionary language at the same time Public Works Director Eric Lindman was releasing his own statements declaring the water safe to drink.
The explosion of social media platforms requires nimble thinking about ways cities should engage on each. Teddy Goff, the co-founder of Precision Strategies and the digital director of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, said city leaders must think about the role each social media platform actually plays in people’s lives.
Twitter is good for news, he said. Facebook is more of a place to speak about community values and to reach older constituents. Instagram and Snapchat are venues where young users engage – but not in the realm of municipal issues or even politics.
“Nothing could be worse than some old politician trying to speak in official-sounding ways on Snapchat,” he said.
For now, the challenges continue. Under the current administration, Wausau created a “media” email as a catchall for requests for information from members of the press. But often, those emails go unreturned or are sent from department to department. The lack of response is frustrating for news outlets and for the taxpaying public.
In this case, Wausau Pilot & Review sent a “media” email copying Rosenberg, Groat, Rasmussen and City Council President Becky McElhaney asking for details about the position and their thoughts on the need to fill such a role. That email was forwarded to Henderson, who answered the next day. Rasmussen also responded.
None of the others replied.