By VERNON ROBISON
Last week, the sweetest, feel-good story came across my desk! On Wednesday, I received an excited call from Mr. Hudgell, the art teacher at Grant Bowler Elementary School. He was delighted to inform me that one of his students had won a major honor. Fifth grader Robia Grassmick, age 10, had unexpectedly won a county-wide art contest. Her artwork is to be one of only six finalists selected to decorate the newest edition of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District (LVCCLD) library cards. It was just exactly the kind of thing that a small-town newspaper is made for!
The story was beautiful in its simplicity. It was a positive and happy for the student, teacher, school, community and, of course, the library district. I thought surely this would be a cinch to put together for the enjoyment of our local readers.
And it did actually start out that way. On Friday morning, I was off to the school for the presentation in front of the student body. I had the privilege of briefly interviewing Miss Grassmick and was impressed with this courteous, soft-spoken and bright young lady. Her teacher was simply bursting his buttons with pride in her accomplishment. Bowler principal Shawna Jessen also expressed great enthusiasm for the award and was excited to recognize the youngster as well.
Now all I had left was to talk to someone at the library. I was sure that this would be open-and-shut as well. After all the whole contest was, in essence, a public relations measure for the LVCCLD. It had been crafted with the solitary goal of creating a feeling of openness and a welcoming environment for the library-going public. It was all about making library patrons feel at home, like it was ‘their library.’ And here I was, all ready to give them their well-deserved good press.
Later on that morning, I made a call to the Overton library branch to discuss the good news. I was looking for just one or two brief, feel-good quotes from the local staff: maybe something about how fun it was that a student from little Moapa Valley was recognized in this big county-wide contest; maybe something about how delighted the local staff is about it; maybe something about welcoming everyone in town to the library to check out the local artwork and renew their library cards with the new design. After all, this was the big payday for the district – the fulfillment of all the promises made by this great PR idea.
But my unsophisticated, small-town expectations turned out to be far too simplistic for a complex, urban-run entity like the LVCCLD. The local staff had been instructed, by the strictest district policy, that they were not to make statements of any kind to any media. Never, ever! Not even the little ol’ PROGRESS. While the local librarian really wanted to help me, and he admitted some frustration at his limitation, he insisted that he unable to provide any information whatsoever on this simple subject.
No matter! I simply asked who at the LVCCLD I should call to get a statement. The answer was ‘no one.’ No one, not even the District Director himself, was allowed to speak to the media on anything, I was told. All media inquiries, no matter how simple, small or inconsequential, must be directed through a Las Vegas public relations firm whose services had been contracted by the district.
Well, I have to admit that I felt silly calling a PR firm representative to get an “official statement’ on this sweet little innocent story. But I did it anyway, for the sake of the story, the local student and my readers. To his credit, the PR firm representative was helpful and efficient. He dutifully took down my questions. By the end of the day he had emailed me an official response to my request; no more and no less.
It was a very general, generic statement dealing with the county-wide contest. There was no specific mention whatsoever of our local winner or any reference to a local angle of any kind. It came across as kind of stiff, canned and almost impertinent. Nevertheless it was what I had. So I used it in my report this week.
I came away from the whole experience thinking, ‘Wow! What a huge missed opportunity!’ In their bureaucratic attempt to standardize a sophisticated messaging approach, the district had entirely neutralized its message. In doing so, most of the PR benefits of their contest had been spoiled. All that effort by the library to develop an appearance of openness – a more welcoming face to the public – all of that was gone in one nonsensical, red-tape clogged, bureaucratic stroke.
To be fair, the LVCCLD is not the only, nor the most egregious, offender in this regard. There seems to be a trend among public institutions throughout the region and the state to batten down the hatches and put ever tighter controls on general communications to the media. This has increasingly become an issue; whether in the halls of our urban-based ‘local’ government, the school district, the health district, the police department, the courts, the corrections department, the fire department and a myriad of other public agencies. The flow of basic information through the media to the public has become clogged by this practice of hiring several levels of separation between the source of vital information and the public.
It becomes especially frustrating when a simple story about a small town, local triumph is over-complicated to the point of absurdity. It is hard to imagine that this particular story would be picked up by any media outlet except our small-town newspaper. So how insane is it that such an innocuous matter should have to filter through some hired gate-keeper – completely unattuned to the unique, small-town experience – in order to craft such an antiseptic, cold and urban-soaked statement?
Why did the high-priced PR expert have to be brought in at all? What harm would it possibly do to allow the local librarian a little leeway to give a simple, heartfelt, local statement; a comment that might actually resonate true with the community? Wasn’t that, after all, the whole point of this contest?
This one was a no-brainer! It was a softball if ever there was one. After all, I wasn’t asking anything perilous or difficult. For example, it wouldn’t have even entered my mind at the time to have asked a really tough question. For example, why is scarce library funding being allocated to pay a big-city PR firm to comment on something as simple as the winner of a child’s art contest? Unfortunately, now it is THAT question, and not the art contest, that has been pushed right up there to the top of our minds.