Lessons in juggling from Cincinnati's communications director

By Rocky Merz

Last summer, I transitioned into my new role as Communications Director for the City of Cincinnati. Prior, I served for about 6 years as Public Information Officer for the Cincinnati Health Department. Bed bugs, syphilis and a flu pandemic are just a few of the public relations issues that helped prepare me for the new assignment.

Rocky Merz, CCPH, is director of communications for the City of Cincinnati.

Rocky Merz, CCPH, is director of communications for the City of Cincinnati.

The City of Cincinnati government is an organization of 6,300 employees and 20 stand-alone departments, which means the media relations pace of the new position is intense. One moment we are dealing with a bridge collapse, and the next we are responding to inquiries about the changes to the pension plan. I’d like to share a few thoughts on how I attempt to keep pace.

  • Build relationships. I view my role in large part as a media ombudsman. At the end of the day, my team represents the local government, which belongs to all of us. The media are partners who help share the workings of government with our bosses, the general public. Navigating a large bureaucracy can be challenging for anyone, and reporters are no different. Sincerely working to get questions answered, promptly, goes a long way toward building trust.
  • Make time to plan. Far too rarely do planned items dominate my week; rather, time is consumed by items that seem to come out of nowhere. I view communications two ways, proactive and reactive. The latter are the unplanned items such as a building collapse that, without warning, dominates days or weeks at a time. These situations must be dealt with, with attentiveness and commitment. But whenever possible, spend time proactively identifying, packaging and releasing news items that are interesting and help promote organizational goals. In the long run, this informs the public and reduces the amount of future “fires” burning away hours of the workday. 
  • Monitor and track. Monitoring media provides a sense for whether your point came across and can provide insight as to where the story line may be heading. Further, this provides the opportunity to share the stories with those who should see them, whether the news is good or bad.
  • Respond. When approached about a controversial or complicated issue there is a tendency to freeze, or stick your head in the sand. Regardless of the topic, I make it a goal to return calls from reporters as quickly as possible, certainly no later than the end of the day. Reporters have deadlines. You don’t have to wait until you have all the information. Reach out and let them know when to expect a response, or why certain information is not available.
  • Have a process. The ability to quickly research and synthesize information is critical. I try to remember sequential steps to follow when responding to media inquires. This checklist of sorts helps ensure I don’t overlook something that will cause problems later, which often results in spending time correcting misinformation. 

 The last six months have been a whirlwind. I appreciate the opportunity to share a few insights about my recent transition and very much look forward to the lessons ahead.