Quick, how many Pima County communications staffers does it take to put out a press release?

The short answer is 10. The long answer is one to write the press release, one to Tweet it, one to post it on Facebook, one to make a brochure, one to update the website, one to take photos, one to make the video and one to post it on the blog. That still leaves two staffers to fill in the cracks and manage the message.

At a time when local media are diminished - a downsized Star and defunct Tucson Citizen are just two examples - and governments are gutting and cutting on all fronts, Pima County has put together its own news team to get the info straight to you.

In-house, we jokingly call it the Star Annex because so many former Star (and Citizen) staffers work there, but that's gallows humor. As David Cuillier, interim director of the University of Arizona's School of Journalism, lamented, there is something precarious about news shops cutting back on coverage and government filling that void.

"I understand part of the rationale in that they want accurate information to come out, but really it's the information they want out," he said.

More on that later.

Pima County's PR machine is a staff of 10, six of whom were added in 2011. The positions range from graphic design to multimedia to traditional PR types of duties. Salaries range from about $33,000 for a clerk to $78,000 for Sam Negri, a former Star staffer who heads the team. The budget is about $850,000, which has been paid for through attrition or cuts in other departments. It doesn't include the county's other media relations folks who work directly for several departments such as transportation and wastewater.

The idea of the PR team is to create a government you deserve. The digital age calls for digital responsiveness.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wants the team to get the message out on social media and its "Pima County News" blog on tucsoncitizen.com

Chuckelberry also wants an interactive and nimble website where taxpayers can take care of business like paying for dog licenses. There are plans to add a county TV station.

"Our view is we want more information out there proactively than reactively," he said.

This is all fine and good, but it doesn't pave the county's lousy roads.

Why such a big staff? After all, the city of Tucson has one guy, Michael Graham, for PR in City Hall. And up north in Maricopa County there is a staff of four - three public-information officers and one videographer - for the administration. (Large local governments generally have some department flacks outside the administration.)

ChuckHuck said his communications staff is actually decreasing - yikes! - as it consolidates PR into one team instead of being spread throughout various departments in the county. He doesn't want his team doing interviews with the media, and would rather reporters and the public go straight to department heads. He assures us this is not about information control.

"It should never deteriorate to that," he said.

But there's a difference between maintaining access for reporters, and having the county fill the news hole. And there is precedent for concern here.

Cuillier, our journalism prof, said a trend in federal government is to use public-information offices to filter questions; a process that sounds streamlined but has simply tightened information control.

"In a way, it's a form of censorship," Cuillier said. "It's a way of getting the information out there because they manage the message so strongly."

Cuillier said consolidated public-information teams usually lead to flacks sitting in on interviews or asking reporters to submit questions in writing. Controlling the message - or defining an alternative record - becomes more important than being open.

That wouldn't happen here, right?

I emailed Negri, the county's news director, about a possible phone interview. Here's what he wrote back:


Send me your questions.


Ironically, ChuckHuck excels at managing the media all on his own. He is funny, accessible and gracious, which endears him to reporters. Criticism rolls off his back. When we talked about this column, he joked that maybe we could break the 200-comment barrier (Sí, se puede!). Maybe now his new PR machine can manage that.

Contact Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com