Offices for the City of St. Augustine lost the ability to send e-mail last Sunday night at the height of Hurricane Irma, according to a report received by Historic City News from Public Affairs Director Paul Williamson.
Without access to their usual vehicle for media release distribution, they had to rely on the city’s web site and more extensively on social media, primarily their Facebook page. This tested new ground for a government that until a year ago had no idea how to utilize electronic communications.
“Members of the city’s Public Affairs office worked closely with the team of public information officers at the St Johns County Emergency Operations Center,” Williamson told local reporters last night. “We hope our combined team, sharing and promoting each other’s information, served your needs throughout this emergency.”
As a publisher of daily news, our experience with Williamson and his assistant, Wanda Bray, has been convivial — but it wasn’t until they hired Melissa Wissel that the media relations needs of the community began to be addressed.
Communications last October during Hurricane Matthew were better than they had been during the execution of the 450th Commemoration, for example. But communications from the City during Hurricane Irma were more accurate, collaborative, timely and newsworthy than we have seen over the seventeen years that we have published.
Historic City News broke new ground in electronic publication while most residents were still trying to figure out what a “tweet” was. We have never published with ink on paper because it goes against our corporate philosophy to operate in a paperless environment. We knew that news in print was a dinosaur and only radio or television could offer anything close to Internet broadcasting, so we made our bones in citizen journalism while the medium was still finding acceptance.
We’ve brought along our media sources including photojournalists and the public information officers in local government offices across St Johns County. The City of St Augustine Beach has done a great deal through it’s home-grown public affairs efforts. The City of St Augustine has a $50 million budget, so they hired third-party vendors to do the heavy lifting for them, as did the county.
But where the rubber meets the road, is the people who have the mindset that public information belongs to the public; so, the faster, cleaner, and easier it is for the media to access that information, the better informed the public will be. We saw that spirit of cooperation and collaboration during the management of information during this Hurricane. It was appreciated.
And, although the news was not always welcome, it was always available and there was consistency in the reporting of times and places essential to the public interest and safety. We would be remiss not to point out this very measurable improvement and especially the new direction being taken at city hall.