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Roles widen for public information officers in Md.

FREDERICK — Local governments in Maryland will spend more than $4.1 million to pay at least 50 employees who work either full or part time as public information officers, according to a survey by The Frederick News-Post.

Salaries for spokespeople across the state ranged from as much as $165,000 to nothing at all. Some agencies do not employ people specifically as information gatekeepers. Others did not reply to multiple requests for information.

The total salary figure includes data for the top information officials in each of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City, and each of their primary police and school system spokespeople. The $4.1 million does not include additional office staff, including assistant public information officers, but does include those who said working with the public was only part of his or her overall primary duties. Responses were self-reported by agency employees as the result of email and phone surveys by the News-Post.

Denser counties with diverse populations and economies tended to pay more. Montgomery County spokesman Patrick Lacefield earns a salary of a little more than $165,000 annually, the highest in the state, and more than the median household income in Montgomery County, which was $95,660 for 2007 through 2011 according to the U.S. Census.

“A PIO in the modern era does not sit by the phone and wait for the phone to ring,” Lacefield said.

That’s a sentiment shared by John Verrico, incoming president of the National Association of Government Communicators and a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The role that government communicators play is really vital to the government and its constituents,” Verrico said.

Lacefield manages 13 employees and also oversees the county’s 311 call center, which has a staff of about 40 call takers. Lacefield writes some news releases and speeches for County Executive Ike Leggett, he said.

With more than 1 million residents in Montgomery County, “there’s a necessity to communicate about what the county does and what the county executive’s ideals, initiatives and programs are,” Lacefield said.

In some Maryland counties, the role of a PIO is one of many job duties. Particularly in less populous counties, the role might not exist at all. Eleven counties reported at least one agency in which no one serves solely in a communications role. In the Eastern Shore’s Kent County, neither the schools, the sheriff’s office nor the government employed a PIO.

In Somerset County, also on the Eastern Shore, with an estimated 2012 population of 26,253 and a median income of $41,420, department directors handle their own public information, Cindy Ward, executive aide to the county’s commissioners, wrote in an email.

“For countywide related issues, the county administrator may serve in that capacity, but it does not occur very often,” Ward wrote.

Somerset’s Sheriff’s Office faces a similar situation.

“We’re so small, everybody has to do everything,” Sheriff Bobby Jones said.

The office has 26 sworn deputies and five civilian employees, Jones said. One employee writes news releases and the person who answers questions from the public “all depends on the situation,” he said.

Each jurisdiction’s needs differ, said Todd McFee, president of the National Association of County Information Officers. A more rural area might have less need for a public information officer than a more urban one.

“The biggest advantage is they can help you make sure that your message, your side of the story, is getting out,” McFee said.

Spin control might have a negative connotation for some, but getting out in front of an agency’s message can help combat rumors and inform the public, McFee said.

Combating rumors is one of the challenges Michael Doerrer, spokesman for Frederick County Public Schools, said he has faced since starting his job last July. Doerrer manages 12 employees and ranks No. 7 among respondents to the News-Post with a salary of more than $120,000 annually. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Frederick County has 239,582 residents and a median annual household salary of $82,668.

Doerrer said he must stay on top of current trends in local education and keep up with social media to do his job.

The most important aspect of his work is connecting with the community, but internal communications are also key, he said. Doerrer talks with school principals frequently. He called his salary “relative” to that of other school employees, including teachers.

“I think one thing to note is that all of the administrative and office positions support student achievement,” Doerrer said. “That is the bottom line.”

Doerrer was the only Frederick County official to make the top 10 ranking. Public school PIOs tended to be better compensated than others. Of the 10 full-time spokespeople with the highest salaries surveyed by the News-Post, seven worked in county school systems.

Bob Mosier, public relations coordinator for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, was unsure why school PIOs might make up the bulk of higher-paid officials. With an annual salary of more than $131,000, Mosier ranked No. 3.

Mosier’s responsibilities are broad, he said. His six-person department would be responsible for writing a letter to parents if there has been a crisis at school, like an evacuation because of a gas leak. They have written about 200 letters and 190 news releases since the start of the school year, he said.

The department facilitates training for principals, assistant principals and other staff who may need to communicate with the public. It also oversees the school system’s websites and runs its public access TV station.

The role of a school public information officer — and the pay — in part reflects the expectations of parents and can show how well a community values education, said Karen Kleinz, associate director of the Rockville-based National School Public Relations Association.

“What we’re dealing with are children,” Kleinz said. “It’s the most important commodity that we have.”

Communications within and about a public school system is strategic — a specialized role that most teachers wouldn’t be able to step into, Kleinz said. An effective school communicator builds support for teachers and the system, she said.

“You’re paying for specific expertise,” Kleinz said.

Montgomery County school spokesman Dana Tofig did not agree with the characterization that school public information officers out-earned their counterparts, but he emphasized that school PIOs are always on call. Tofig ranked No. 5 for salaries, making $131,549.

“It’s an extremely busy job that is 24/7,” he said.

Howard County government spokesman Mark Miller said that the higher salaries might have to do with the long hours required of the position. Miller ranked No. 8 with his salary of $118,872.

“Generally speaking, public information officers are always on call, and there are certain departments or units where the hours are incredibly long,” he said.

Responding to crisis situations can mean long days.

Mychael Dickerson’s first day on the job as spokesman for Baltimore County’s school system put his skills to the test. On that day, Robert Gladden Jr. shot and injured a student at Perry Hall High School. Gladden was sentenced to 35 years in prison in the case.

Dickerson didn’t know many people yet, but that didn’t affect how he responded to the Perry Hall school shooting, he said.

Dickerson, ranked No. 2 in the state for his salary of $155,000 a year, said he contacted parents directly about their children’s welfare that day.

“It’s also important to remember there’s a police investigation … you err on the side of being cautious,” he said.

Not all PIOs were forthcoming. Some counties, including Harford County government and its public schools, and the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for information.

The Prince George’s County Public Schools requested the newspaper file a Freedom of Information Act request with the system for job description and salary details regarding its spokesman, Briant Coleman. The News-Post filed a Maryland Public Information Act request with the agency April 15. The school system responded April 23.

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