Under a new Washington County policy, media interviews with government staff members must be coordinated by the county's new public relations director.
Sarah J. Lankford, who was hired July 1 to direct the county's new Department of Public Relations and Community Affairs, will serve as the spokeswoman or designate an appropriate person for all interactions with the media, under the new policy announced last week.
In response to media inquiries, Lankford will either consult staff and relay an answer, or, "if it's something that (Washington County Administrator) Greg Murray deems it's OK for them to answer," will have the appropriate staff member call the reporter, she said.
The Division of Emergency Services will still speak on behalf of the county about emergency public safety issues, and, as elected officials, the county commissioners, sheriff, state's attorney and treasurer may voice their opinions, Lankford said.
Lankford said the new policy was put in place by Murray and is meant to ensure media reports have the most comprehensive, accurate and complete information possible.
For example, if Lankford knows about a planned news story, she might be able to provide information from other relevant departments or address related public concerns, she said.
"It's not that I'm going to be the only one talking," she said. "It's that we need to know what the questions are up front, and I'm to help coordinate that."
All five members of the Washington County Board of Commissioners said they thought it was a good idea.
"I think it's just, with certain questions, to try to get the most accurate and best information out to the citizens," Commissioners President Terry Baker said.
"We were, I think, pretty much in consensus as a group of commissioners," John F. Barr said of the new policy, which he noted was aimed at improving the accuracy and clarity of county information.
Commissioner William B. McKinley said he thought it would be to the county's advantage for questions to be funneled through one area, "so the county administrator would know what the issues were."
"If you called someone at the landfill about an important issue, it may not get back to (Murray)," McKinley said.
Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham spoke of the importance of accurate, complete and consistent information.
Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline said he wouldn't object to having a reporter call a department head directly, but he thought that calling the public relations director first would promote coordination from multiple departments, such as information about schools, highways and emergency services during a snowstorm.
"By having a public relations specialist ... we'll be able to get more good and complete, accurate information out to the public and better serve the media for a go-to source," Cline said.