Does Richland County need better PR? Council members want to hire an image maker

The Richland County Council meets. 2/19/19
The Richland County Council meets. 2/19/19 tglantz@thestate.com

Richland County Council wants better PR.

Richland County Council voted Tuesday to hire a public relations firm that could help them in “informing the media and general public” about the council’s “collective work and activities and community engagements.”

The proposal would allow paying up to $50,000 a year for the outside consulting help, according to a draft request for proposals reviewed by the council. While Richland County has a public information office staffed with six county employees, the consultants would work directly with individual council members on reaching their constituents.

Consultants would develop a strategy for effective and timely communication with the public, arrange media interviews for council members, update the county website, photograph council meetings and provide briefing material for the council. They would also serve as a “media coach” to help members have more “effective communication with the public and with employees” while ensuring “Council abides by state law in its interactions with staff.”

While cities and counties in South Carolina often contract with PR consultants to promote various projects and programs, no other local government in the Palmetto State seems to use them in a similar way. The city of Columbia and Charleston and Greenville counties tell The State they don’t have consultants working directly with council members. The Association of Counties and Municipal Association of South Carolina also couldn’t name a local government with a similar arrangement.

Ashley Hunter is the CEO of MPA Strategies, a company that contracts with local governments to write grants, build websites and handle digital communications and marketing. She also serves as a public information officer for several local governments.

“It’s not unusual for local governments to hire outside public relations and marketing firms,” Hunter said. “By doing so, cities and counties save on hiring individual website, marketing and grant writing personnel,” saving taxpayers money, she said.

However, contracting with firms to specifically promote individual council members tends to be viewed as political, Hunter said.

Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, who sponsored the resolution, did not respond to requests for comment from The State. Councilwoman Chakisse Newton said that while the county’s own information office works to represent county government as a whole, a PR firm would assist council members with “communications and marketing,” like setting up a constituent newsletter.

Newton cited New Orleans as an example of what Richland County wants to do.

“Every individual council member has someone who works with them,” she said, although she says council doesn’t want to go that far. “It gives them dramatically more resources with an internal team, an internal PIO... and New Orleans is not unusual from what I understand.”

Attempts to contact New Orleans City Hall were unsuccessful, as municipal services were suspended last week while Tropical Storm Barry approached.

Newton said council members still haven’t set the scope of the contractor’s work, but want to ensure “parity and fairness” between all 11 council members.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilwoman Yvonne McBride said overworked council members are in need of assistance.

“We have a tremendous amount of work we do,” she said. “We do our own research, plan our own events. A lot of the work is left up to us. Staff helps when they can, but you don’t realize how much time we have to spend on it.”

Councilmen Chip Jackson and Bill Malinowski voted against initial reading of the measure, arguing the job description should be handled by county staff.

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.