The city of Killeen hired a new communications director last week.
That may not seem like a very big development to some residents, but the position is crucial to the timely and transparent dissemination of city information.
In a city the size of Killeen, which more than 160,000 people call home, just providing residents with pertinent news and information can be a daunting task — one that requires a director who has both a mind for details and the ability to communicate effectively.
In hiring Janell Ford as its communications director, the city may have found that balance.
Several factors would seem to make Ford a good fit for Killeen.
First, she has a solid educational background, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public affairs, as well as a master’s degree in mass communications.
Secondly, she has experience in the television field, having worked for affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News.
Thirdly, Ford has worked in public affairs at several military installations, most recently serving as the public affairs officer at Fort Irwin, in California, home of the National Training Center.
Her responsibilities there included management of six social media accounts for the post, tripling the following of all accounts, according to information from the Department of Defense.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is Ford’s connection to Killeen. Both her parents were in the military, and Ford lived in Killeen as a child while her parents were stationed at Fort Hood. In addition, her husband has served 25 years in the Army and is now assigned here.
So not only does Ford understand the dynamics of a military community from her experience as a civilian PAO and military spouse, she has firsthand experience with our own community — and that’s significant.
Certainly, Ford’s educational background and broad spectrum of work experience make her an excellent choice for the position, but her approach to the job deserves special recognition.
After her confirmation for the job at Tuesday’s council meeting, Ford said she would focus on reaching as many residents as possible, adding, “ I want to make sure we are getting face-to-face with the community, and communicating with everyone on every level.”
Just as important was Ford’s emphasis on developing a positive working relationship with the news media, saying she plans to have “meetings and consistent conversations” with the journalists who cover city council and others she will be working with.
“I think having a good relationship with those journalists will be key and making sure we are non-biased and as transparent as possible,” Ford said.
If Ford is committed to transparency and two-way communication with the media, that will be a welcome and beneficial development for our community.
Over the past decade, the city has frequently been difficult to deal with regarding the release of public information, often requiring the filing of an open records request with the state attorney general’s office.
In cases where the information in question involves employee records or privacy issues, it is understandable that the city would defer to the AG’s office.
But frequently over the past 10 years, many of the Herald’s information requests were denied by the city, even when what was sought clearly met the legal definition of public information.
In some of these cases, the city was simply using the open records request process as a tool to delay the release of the information — hoping that the story in question would either go away or would no longer be pertinent by the time the AG’s office returned its ruling.
Such delay tactics are not just frustrating to the media; they are harmful to the public at-large — in effect, denying taxpayers access to information involving the workings of their city.
In other areas, the city has seemed capricious or arbitrary in its release of information.
Such was the case when the city repeatedly denied access to a video involving then-Bell County Commissioner Daryl Peters — even after County Attorney Jim Nichols gave his OK for its release.
In another case, the Herald asked the city why its public works director had decided not to have Killeen’s water tanks disinfected, after a major drop in water pressure — though neighboring Harker Heights, which also had a pressure drop, was doing so. Killeen’s spokesperson declined to provide details, whereas Harker Heights’ PIO gave a thorough response, including a day-by-day timeline of the disinfection process.
Obviously, there’s much more to the handling of the communication director’s job than deciding what information should be made available to the media.
Part of the role involves — or should involve —having regular, reasonable exchanges with media members over city-related issues. These exchanges should be an open dialogue, and that hasn’t always been the case in recent years.
For one thing, media members should be confident of receiving responses to their inquiries within a few hours. This is not only crucial to the news-gathering process but also frequently impacts public safety and awareness.
Too often, Herald reporters sent their questions to the city early in the day but didn’t receive a response until the following day — and in some cases, the questions went unanswered.
A professional relationship between journalists and the city spokesperson should be one of respect — and that means answering questions fully and promptly. It also means that when the city must deny information, the reporters deserve some sort of explanation as to why the information is being denied.
In return, the media’s expectations of the city’s chief public information officer challenge us to be professional and fair in our reporting — as we at the Herald continually strive to do.
No doubt, part of the communication director’s role is that of gatekeeper, and because of this function, the position is critical for both the city and its residents.
Still, it is often necessary for media members to ask questions directly to department heads, rather than having the communications director serve as an intermediary, as has been the case in recent years.
One benefit of direct communication is expediency. If a department head is available for comment, it eliminates the wait time for a return email — and could potentially mean earlier publication of a news article incorporating the requested information.
A second, more important dividend is accuracy. With a direct phone call to the appropriate city official, reporters can ask followup questions and obtain pertinent context and details that may not come across in a string of forwarded emails.
It is in the city’s best interest to ensure that the public has the most accurate information on sometimes complicated issues; therefore, making department heads available for direct questioning would seem to be a smart move.
Ultimately, of course, the communications director’s policies will reflect the policies and preferences of the city manager — and to that end, Ford may find herself challenged to be as open and transparent as she has promised to be.
But through open dialog and frequent conversations with reporters covering the city, Ford can help improve relations with the media, while at the same time helping Killeen’s residents to get a better understanding of how their city works.
City Manager Kent Cagle is to be commended for making a strong hire with the appointment of Ford. Now it’s up to Cagle to let her use her experience and follow her instincts in helping to make Killeen a more open, transparent city.
That’s a goal we should all get behind.