Public information officers called on to combat social media falsehoods



PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — The rise of social media has led to a subsequent rise in the need for public employees to combat distortions and lies, according to several local government leaders.

This is most acutely felt among education officials where a Facebook rumor can lead to hundreds of parents either rushing to a school to pick up children who are (in reality) perfectly safe. School officials are also called on to explain the truth behind threatening posts from students and soothe nervous students, parents, and grandparents who know something is wrong but don’t yet have the full story. 

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“People want the school district to be immediately responsive to their questions and their needs,” said Superintendent Bill Husfelt. “Our protocol is to get the correct and most up to date information out to our parents. They want to know: One, that we know about it. They want to know what we’re doing about it. And then what we’re going to do that next day or what we’re doing right then to keep those kids safe at that school.”

In 2018 Husfelt moved Sharon Michalik, who was the head of Human Resources, to a newly created position: Bay District Director of Communications. Michalik has been with the district for 20 years makes $90,193 a year.

Michalik is a department head and handles communication duties for the district and assists principals at every school. She also oversees public records requests which require intense scrutiny so that the district doesn’t violate the law by releasing confidential student information while also meeting the requirements of Florida’s broad records rules. 

Meanwhile, Michalik is also in charge of the district’s shelters and has overseen the training of hundreds of employees who will now be called on when the county opens its doors in an emergency. Michalik also coordinated several drives for food, gifts, and clothes for needy students and families after Hurricane Michael.

“Her energy to do all that has just been amazing,” Husfelt said. 

Energy is part of the equation. Another important factor is trust, said Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson. 

“It’s about building trust equity with our citizens,” Adkinson said. “At the end of the day for us to function as a steward of the people’s authority people have to know we’re trustworthy.”

Adkinson has two employees who handle public communications; Former News 13 Reporter and Anchor Corey Dobridnia serves as the public affairs coordinator. Lindsey Darby works as a public information officer. Dobridnia makes $59,970 and Darby makes $47,964.

Some agencies have officers or deputies handle these duties as part of their workload. Adkinson said that work in some places but points out that the Walton County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for hundreds of employees, along with overseeing fire rescue, animal services, and the county jail. 

“I don’t do cardiothoracic surgery, I hire a surgeon to do that,” Adkinson said. 

He also pointed to WCSO’s strong and popular presence on social media as a solid example of the difference good PIO’s can make. 

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As part of an ongoing series of stories on taxpayer-funded salaries, News 13 requested the salaries of local public information officers. We found a wide range of compensation levels and duties. After Michalik, Valerie Sale, the Director of Communications for Bay County and Louis Svehla, the public information officer for Walton County are among the highest-paid in The Panhandle. Sale makes $82,763. Svehla makes $78,846, 

Although the day to day work is busy enough, there are times when their jobs can quite literally be the difference between life and death. 

Following Hurricane Michael area public information officers worked around the clock inside Bay County’s Emergency Operations Center trying to get information to victims about where they could go to get help. 

“They really are the lifeline for providing vital information about what is going on in an incident to the public,” said Bay County Manager Bob Majka. “You guys want to get it from a reliable source and we have an obligation to provide it and make sure it is true and accurate.”

The storm knocked out all of the traditional methods of communicating with the public. For several days phone, radio and television signals were unable to reach most of the community. Majka said that one of the methods the county used was suggested by Sale. They flew a banner plane with FEMA information over the impacted neighborhoods. 

“In my mind, it was a textbook example in the worst of situations there was zero technology to communicate with the public and these ladies were coming up with pretty creative ways to get people informed,” Majka said. 

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