ON CRISIS: EPISODE SIX

featuring Chris Togneri | In this episode, Pittsburgh’s Public Information Officer Chris Togneri gives his insider’s perspective on the current state of journalism, the power of social media, and the bygone era when local journalism got it right: when editors challenged reporters to spend time on stories, and constantly piqued curiosity through source relationship building.

THE “ON CRISIS” PODCAST: EPISODE 6

With distrust in traditional media at an all-time high as news outlets increasingly become platforms for far right and far left ideologies, one thing is for certain: “The world needs more Sandy Tollivers.” In episode six, we talk with Pittsburgh’s Public Information Officer, Chris Togneri. After receiving his master’s in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, Chris covered crime as a beat reporter in California, and then went on to Pittsburgh as a trailblazing journalist, writing award-winning features for one of Pittsburgh’s top newspapers. Looking to get an insider’s perspective on how first responders really operated, Chris became the city’s public information officer in 2018 and immediately innovated — utilizing social media to turn the information portal he was in charge of into a newsroom. We get his insider’s perspective on the “defund the police” movement, the lack of editor leadership in local newsrooms, and reflect on the days when local journalism got it right.

Episode 6: Chris Togneri - The City Of Pittsburgh's Public Information Officer

by On Crisis Podcast

Read the Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:00:07):

I’m Joanna Doven. This is On Crisis, bringing together PR experts, thought leaders, creatives, and CEOs here to start conversations and connect people with real life stories and crisis communications.

Speaker 2 (00:00:20):

I’m excited for you to listen to today’s episode of on crisis with Chris Togneri, the city of Pittsburgh’s public information officer. Chris is in charge of all communications from public safety departments within the city, including police. And he’s actually built his own newsroom housed in the city to more effectively communicate with the media and public. This was a result of him realizing when he switched from a 20 plus year career in journalism to working on the inside of city government to realizing that it really wasn’t that easy to work with the media that sometimes they didn’t have time to report on stories, get them right, or really tell the full story. So he created his own newsroom, has tens of thousands of followers on social media. What’s so interesting about this episode is his insight perspective of what he thought city government was like and what he thought the police were like when he was reporter.

Speaker 2 (00:01:25):

And then how that changed when he actually got to see it for himself, be on the inside and not on the outside. We talk about what newsrooms used to be like back in the day and how newsrooms have changed today. And, and that when we look at reporting and we’re seeing a bifurcation in the media of far-left reporting versus far-right reporting, and we’re wondering where the heck is that middle. We really can’t always blame reporters for that. We have to look at the actual news organizations themselves. We talk about why the world needs, needs more good editors like Sandy Tolliver. I think we’re going to create a meme out of that one, but the world needs more Sandy turnovers. We talk about that because Chris harkens to the day when he had editors, who challenged him to get both sides of the story and to take time to develop sources so that you really could get the story that’s not happening today, at least as much.

Speaker 2 (00:02:28):

And we talk about how we can possibly change that. Listen in, I’m so excited to have Chris Togneri here with us today on, On Crisis. Chris and I go way back. He was a reporter with the Tribune-Review when I was the press secretary for the mayor. So we worked together a bit. I have to say that in working with many reporters, Chris was known in the industry as being one of the most reputable fair, honest, and really likes to tell the story. So the city of Pittsburgh is very lucky to have him as their public information officer where he’s in charge of all public information for please fire EMS, DBI. What else? Animal control,

Speaker 3 (00:03:16):

Animal care and control emergency management. Yeah, anything public safety.

Speaker 2 (00:03:23):

So you’re working for a big city mayor right now, and one of the most tumultuous times when it comes to, you know, please citizen relations, public safety in general the job must be a lot.

Speaker 3 (00:03:41):

It is a lot. And just to clarify, I actually worked for the public safety director, not directly for the mayor. So my bosses, Wendell history, the public safety director and his boss is the mayor.

Speaker 2 (00:03:50):

Got it. Got it. Understood. Thanks for the clarification. So, you know, the reason why I wanted to have you on today is, you know, you and I talk by phone every once in a while. And you, you know, you know what I do in my profession and working with clients and managing crisis communications and you know, how the media has changed over the past several years. Not withstanding that there’s this past year with Coronavirus. I think overall in the media landscape, I think it’s been a 25% reduction in media. In general, we’ve seen that locally as well. With the Post-Gazette for example, there was a recent round of layoffs there, which is our longest standing paper. Let’s just dive right into some strategies that you are, you created and are utilizing as the PIO. How are you challenged in getting information out there to people right now, given there’s less reporters to cover things.

Speaker 3 (00:04:55):

Yeah. It’s, you know, it’s sort of, we’ve been forced to kind of change the philosophy around here. You there, it used to be in, and certainly when you were in the mayor’s office, it used to be that when you needed to get information out, you, you needed the media to amplify that message. That’s no longer the case for a couple of reasons. One because of the cutbacks and newsrooms you know, the, the influence of the media is not as great as it was. They’re not as reaching, they’re not reaching as many people, but also with social media we often don’t need to use the media to get messages out. We can do it ourselves. So we, the PIO office here, we try to operate as an independent newsroom and it it’s taken, it’s taken some time when I came here there was really no social media strategy. We had a very limited footprint in social media. I believe I just, I, I did the numbers fairly recently when we start, when I started, which would have been in the spring of 2018, we had on all of our social media channels. We had about 10,000 followers. So we could reach an audience of about 10,000 people.

Speaker 2 (00:06:17):

So does that include like the mayor’s office? No. Public safety bureaus. Got it. Okay.

Speaker 3 (00:06:24):

Correct. In the almost three years, since we’ve increased that exponentially, we can now reach hundreds of thousands of people. Our main, our main social media platform where we release breaking news is a public safety Twitter. When I took over, we had 3000 followers, we’re up to 30,000 followers. So, you know, we, we still need to be way higher than 30,000.

Speaker 2 (00:06:48):

I mean, do you, I think that’s still really good. I mean, it’s a niche audience is going to really follow that. Right?

Speaker 3 (00:06:55):

Sure. But I mean, that, that has become the place where when there’s breaking news and we need to get it out, people know,

Speaker 2 (00:07:03):

For example, like if there was standing water or flood on a particular Boulevard, you would, you know, and I let’s say I take that route home. If I’m following your Twitter feed, it’s coming to me fast. But what about things like, you know, text message alerts, those kinds of things for major issues.

Speaker 3 (00:07:23):

At this point, we don’t have that ability. We, we use the Twitter account though for, for example, protests. When we, when the protest, what a protest becomes mobile, we use Twitter to let people know this is where they are. This is what, what intersections have been locked down. So that way, if you’re a motorist and you want to avoid it, you know exactly how to avoid it for, you know, tree of life, that was our active shooter situations. We use the Twitter account to tell people, this is, this is the situation that’s happening right now, avoid the area. When more information is available, we will get it out. So back backtracking a little bit. So th th the Twitter account is what we use for, for breaking news. And then we use other channels, Facebook, Facebook pages Instagram to do these storytelling. I getting back to media you know, we can’t get media, local media to tell the whole story.

Speaker 2 (00:08:27):

Okay, let me, let me pause you. So how, how new of a phenomenon would you say that is? Was that the case when you started in 2018, too loaded?

Speaker 3 (00:08:39):

Yeah. So what it took, took me a while to come around to that way of thinking, right?

Speaker 2 (00:08:46):

Yeah. When you’re on the other side now, so you, right.

Speaker 3 (00:08:50):

You, when I was a reporter I had the benefit of some amazing editors. Yeah, I’m going to that’s exactly the person I was going to mention. Sandy Toliver was a reporters dream, and she was my editor for as long as I was there with her. And she was the type of reporter who understood you. Can’t just, you need to put in the time, you need the time to develop sources, to develop beat. And I go back to the Jordan Brown murder case up in new castle. Jordan Brown was an 11 year old who was accused of fatally shooting his father’s pregnant fiance.

Speaker 3 (00:09:35):

I want to say 2009, maybe 2008. It was, I moved to Pittsburgh in 2007, but it was pretty soon after I got here. We knew that that was going to be a major story for a number of reasons, one in Pennsylvania, there, there were laws on the books at the time where if you are charged with murder, you’re automatically charged as an adult. And in Pennsylvania, if you are convicted of murder, you automatically receive life from prison. So this 11 year old was possibly going to be the youngest person in us history sentenced to life in prison without parole and early on, Sandy took me aside and said, this is your story. You need to be up there. So there were at least, at least one day a week for years, I was up in new castle because Sandy understood you.

Speaker 3 (00:10:29):

Don’t go up there to get a story. Every time you go up there to develop sources and develop the beat and get people to talk to you so that when the breaking news happens, you have people who were going to talk to you and that doesn’t happen anymore. Developing relationship building it doesn’t, it, it absolutely does not. And I’m not necessarily blaming reporters. I think it’s the, it’s, it’s our fault as news consumers, because we’re not supporting local news enough. So the newsrooms have to cut back and, you know, they’re asked to do more with less, which is the stupidest phrase that anyone could ever utter. You can’t do more with less. You do less.

Speaker 2 (00:11:07):

This is all what we’re realizing in 2020, 2021 is the, the unintended consequences of social media, social media has, has really, I’m gonna say it’s in many ways, destroy the news industry. And we’re all having to sort of pivot. As you know, as a PR firm, we have a harder time placing the full story for clients. We pivoted about two years ago to doing a lot more than just our immediate placement. I mean, crisis communications and the news will always flow to a crisis and there’s always going to be used to manage there. That’s different, but still it, you know, the, the amount of time reporters have to give to any one story has been truncated. It’s very, it’s very rare, rare where we’re able to get, you know, clients, the coverage sometimes they deserve. And, and it’s, it’s, it’s really, I think it’s because of social media. So to your point, okay, we’re going to be our own news, our news station, we’re going to be our own news station. Has that, has that, has that alienated any local media from, from impacted any relationships that you’ve had with them because they maybe think, what does he think he’s doing? Why isn’t he giving this to me first? Why, why, why is he breaking it on his Twitter feed and not with my news organization? Have you faced that?

Speaker 3 (00:12:38):

No. I mean, again, the reason that we have become our own newsroom is because we can’t, we can’t pitch all the stories that we want done. So we just have to tell them our own. If someone were to say, and a lot of times people will see the stories that we put out, we say, Hey, that’s interesting. Can we do something on that when we say, of course but I, you know, it’s also, I need to clarify that we’re not taking away the information that we give to the public that has not changed at all. It’s just the stories that the news outlets are not going to cover the positive stories because that is part of the whole if you, if you read the local coverage of public safety, you would think that it is only bad, only bad things happen.

Speaker 3 (00:13:29):

And that’s obviously not the case but local media is not able or willing to cover the good stuff as well. So we do it. And that’s how we, how we’ve approached it. In terms of getting news out to, to the media though, you know, we created shortly after I started, I created the public safety blotter, which is basically anytime anything happens, we put it on the blotter. If there’s a shooting, if there’s a you know, flooding a car fire, three alarm fire, or greater anything that we as PIO is response to or if we hear about it, we just put it on the blotter. So everyone has it. And it’s been, it’s a more efficient way. It used to be, we would show up at an incident. We would talk to the media and then we would respond to individual inquiries by email and phone.

Speaker 3 (00:14:19):

Now we put it out in the blotter, all of the media has it at once. We put out photos when we can and, and it’s a much more efficient. We get more information out now than we ever have in the history of the PIO office. There’s more information going out now than ever before. And the blotter is a big part of it. We don’t the blog, it doesn’t require immediate inquiry. If we hear about something, we put it out and then we’ll get inquiries and say, Hey, we’re wondering, we heard this on the scanner. We can immediately say, it’s on the blotter, go check it out in the water, all the information that we can. Wow.

Speaker 2 (00:14:52):

That’s really cool. Are there any sensitivities from, you know commanders about certain things that should not be put out as they could compromise their investigation or compromise public safety?

Speaker 3 (00:15:08):

Yes. certainly. So we don’t, the blotter again, is a way to get out as much information as we can, as soon as we can, which means that the information is going to be limited because we can’t jeopardize investigations, but we do put out as much as we can. And it’s a learning curve. When I started one of the first things that I wanted to change was saying, which hospital people were brought to, he used to infuriate me as a reporter. I would be, you know, there’s a shooting. And they say they were taken to a hospital and said, which hospital, we’re not going to tell you. I just thought, why not? Why wouldn’t they tell us? So I, I recall early on, I wanted to make that change. And I went to the major crimes commander, and I said, I’m going to start saying, give me a reason why we shouldn’t tell people what hospital and he, his response was if we have any victim of a violent crime. Yeah. That means that somebody tried to kill this person. Why are we going to tell that person who didn’t succeed, where they are? And that made sense to me. So now when we have a victim of a violent crime, we don’t say the hospital, if it’s a car crash, there was no crime. Then we will say the hospital.

Speaker 3 (00:16:17):

So there is information that we can’t release. And, but the key is explaining to reporters why, and that’s, that’s what I do. There was a SWAT call in Troy Hill a couple of weeks ago. And I was talking to a reporter and she said, what hospital did this victim go to? And I said, we can’t. And I explained, and the reporter was like, Oh, okay. Now that I understand why it makes perfect sense, I’ll share it with everyone else in the newsroom. And that’s how, that’s how I try to operate is to, if we can’t release information, I explained why we’re not going to just say, no, you’re not telling her that.

Speaker 2 (00:16:51):

Right. And in my, and in my experience, I mean, you, you have, I will just say it, you have some reporters who are on crime beads or investigative beats. That will be unreasonable. They just will be. It’s a very small percentage. And they’ll they’ll if you tell them why they won’t, they don’t care because they just want the information, but most reporters, they respect that they want, they want to understand. And the fact that you’re in the seat the PIO seat, and you’re curious, like, it seems as if you took the job with the same curiosity, you approached the job with the same curiosity as you do with any new story, and you wanted to figure things out, figure out the puzzle, tell the story, and, and that’s leading to your success.

Speaker 3 (00:17:39):

I, I had never wanted to be anything except a journalist. I never had any ambitions to be a PIO or to be anything except really a print reporter. And the, the only reason that I tried this was I was freelancing for a while in Pittsburgh. And I had an interview with the mayor. And after the interview, you know, he mentioned that my, my predecessor was leaving. They were going to need a a replacement and that you know, the previous life before I moved to Pittsburgh, I covered crime for a number of years in California. And he knew that and so he suggested that I apply and I remember I left and I thought, that’s not chance. There’s no way that I would do this. But the more that I thought about it, I kind of looked at it as an opportunity. You know, for years I was standing outside of the building trying to figure out what was going on inside. And this was my chance to go in and figure it all out. This was my chance to see it. So I took, I decided that I would try it for a while. And you know, here we are three years later and

Speaker 2 (00:18:59):

I’ll take, tell I, here’s what I, here’s what I tell all, press secretaries. And you kind of fall under that in a way because it’s similar, right? Here’s what I say. I say after two and a half years on the job, he can’t learn anything else.

Speaker 3 (00:19:13):

Oh, that’s I can learn a lot more

Speaker 2 (00:19:17):

Meaning, like you’ve, you’ve absorbed and you’re now you’re just giving, giving, giving, giving, and you’re putting out. And and I be careful for that burnout. It might sit soon. I burned out probably three years into the job as press secretary. Now, look, it’s not apples and apples because when I was doing this job, there were 11 beat reporters. Right. My bad constantly. We, we actually adopted social media. So when I was press secretary, we adopted social media. It was 2009. Like, so the city of Pittsburgh had social media and I was really pushing to, to expand how we used it. And I remember the only other city that was using social to like I in a PIO kind of way, like you’re doing was I think it was Boston. And it ended up being a whole legal thing. Like, you know, this, the city solicitor had to review it.

Speaker 2 (00:20:17):

Okay. Well, how, if, if, if we’re going to be posting what’s the policy for taking down comments? So we crap. We had to make a whole policy. And so we did launch social channels, but it wasn’t used, like you’re using it now. It was really more about getting like positive information out there, like, okay, we’re announcing the snow angels program, things like that. But it really has evolved and the media has evolved. And you know, now, now, like you said, you’re, you’re, you’re having to be innovative. You’re having to kind of innovate in order to fill, you know, fill the perception gap too. That’s in people’s minds. And I want to, I actually want to go back to what you said. So when you were talking about why was your opportunity to actually be in on the inside and understand what was going on in city hall and city government let’s do a little game, like perception versus reality. Okay. So I don’t have any questions prepared for this, but let’s just talk about it. So w what did you broadly speaking? What did you perceive? What did you, what did you think the show was like before coming in on the inside?

Speaker 3 (00:21:38):

I, you know, I tell people this all the time when I started, I expected it to be like any workplace. There would be some really good people. There’ll be some bad people. And then there’ll be a lot of people in the middle along the curve. Because that’s, you know, that’s, that’s whatever, what everywhere is like. But once I got in there and I tell people rest easy when you go to sleep, because it’s way better than I ever imagined you does. And I think there’s a reason why you don’t enter. You don’t become a first responder, unless you mean it, unless you are willing to put your life down for a stranger for the city that you work for. And that goes for all of the departments that I represent. So it, it’s not a normal workplace. You are getting the best of the best people who are incredibly selfless and literally run towards the crisis while everyone else is running away.

Speaker 3 (00:22:35):

And it’s, it was so much better that the level of people that I found myself surrounded by, in, in, in public safety that not only am I still here three years later when I’d never expected to be here for three years, but I figured if I’m going to represent first responders, I might as well become one, because I’m so impressed by these people. I actually became EMT certified, just so that when something I’m also, if I’m going to represent these people, I’m going to be a first responder to that’s how much people have affected me and how impressed I am by, by these people. Th th there are some people that I wish it would move on. But they are such a small number of the vast majority of the people that I work for. I just, you know, I it’s, it’s an honor to represent them.

Speaker 3 (00:23:27):

So it’s way better than I thought my perception coming in was that it was going to be like any other workplace. And what I found out quickly was, it’s not, you don’t as journalists. I always thought that being a journalist was a calling, and it is. And I still feel like I am a journalist at heart, and, and someday I want to get back into it because I miss it desperately. But I also recognize that it takes something different to become a first responder. And you see it in just like the average person is great. And that’s what I learned in representing these people.

Speaker 2 (00:24:04):

That’s awesome, Chris. Hey, I love, I love hearing that because it, you know, you today, there’s a lot of malcontent surrounding in particular, you know, police officers and, you know, the whole defund, the police movement. And I, I remember I ran out of gas. Okay. By the way. And in my entire lifespan I’ve run out of gas twice. And that was in the past six months. If you want to know how crazy my life’s been, that that’s like, that’s like a, a good data point. But anyhow, it was in the summer and I was kind of in a place where it wasn’t safe. And I had my kids in the car. So I had to call the police. I wasn’t in the city. I was outside of the city, nonetheless. A first responders came and they were two police officers think it was McCandless township.

Speaker 2 (00:25:00):

And they’re really nice. And, you know, understood that we, I was driving a, the time of a Chrysler Pacifica. It’s a van and it has all the technology in it. Well, guess what, when it shuts off, like when it shuts off because of no gas, you can’t actually put it into neutral. I, by the way, I got rid of it after that, because I realized the tech was too advanced and it actually wasn’t thought through, and really wasn’t safe. But nonetheless, while they were helping me single mom with like young kids, there were people yelling at them calling them pigs. And I could see the fear that they had, that they were on a highway near me with cars, driving fast, driving, fast, pass them, people screaming, profanities at them. And it was only like two or three people, but still I felt, I felt really bad. I felt bad. And I know, I understand the movement has its roots for reasons that are, that are, you know, about social justice and our, you know, there’s some truth to that, but it’s a really hard time to be a police officer right now. How, how, what’s your perspective on what you were police department is going through and, and how, how do we get through this?

Speaker 3 (00:26:32):

How do we get through this? But by showing up to work every day you know,

Speaker 2 (00:26:42):

So what we see on TV, right? Or perhaps reading the paper is, you know, people don’t like, please defund the police, but when you’re out there in the communities, when you’re out there and Homewood, when you’re out there and hell district, when you’re out there in Kerrick do, do you see, are people telling the police to go home? Is that actually happening?

Speaker 3 (00:27:02):

Sure. But it, but there’s also a lot of support out there. So I think that there is a, a very vocal group that they’re the most vocal who is critical. And I think, think a lot of police officers totally get it. I mean, what happened in Minneapolis? I don’t know, a police officer who, who supports that or who hasn’t been appalled by what happened. I think the Pittsburgh police so I’m, I’m gonna start by saying the Academy for Pittsburgh police. There are requirements in terms of training for certification for police officers, their requirements statewide Pittsburgh goes so far beyond what is required and adds layer upon layer of different training aspects because Pittsburgh wants to produce the best police in the country. So there’s implicit bias training. There’s a deescalation training. There is a, there’s a pro a great program called inside out where I got the I had the chance to witness in person where they bring recruits to a prison.

Speaker 3 (00:28:20):

And they go in and they have one-on-one. So if there’s a group of 25 recruits, they will bring a group of 25 inmates and they will sit in a circle and they have all these, and it’s not just a one-time it’s weeks, long process. And it’s incredible. And it gives the officers a different perspective and it teaches them that, you know, reasons why people might end up committing crimes and in prison. And it allows them to take a different look at the community that they’re serving. And when you pull someone over, instead of just issuing the citation, maybe, maybe start a conversation and try to unpack and figure out what led you to this point. Why, why did this happen?

Speaker 2 (00:29:05):

Favorite quote, “Be curious, not judgemental. Ask the questions first.” Yep.

Speaker 3 (00:29:10):

I believe a hundred percent in this police department and the steps that for years they’ve been making to become more progressive to become better at building bridges with all members of our community. On the other hand, I a hundred percent agree, a hundred percent understand and agree with peaceful protestors who are, who took to the street and are demanding a change. If you don’t think the police reform is coming, you’re wrong, it is coming and we should embrace it. And I think that Pittsburgh does embrace it. Pittsburgh has all these reforms that have been called for other cities. Pittsburgh has already done the majority of the things. So, you know, ha ha

Speaker 2 (00:29:59):

I mean, is there, is there a, is there a point where you reform too far? Right. Is there a point where you’ve done these reforms and now please have lost their ability to please or please feel unsafe? So what’s next on the Piper?

Speaker 3 (00:30:15):

Yeah. I’m not sure I can answer that question. I think that’s someone way smarter than me. I just think that we are on a path. There’s a national conversation that’s starting now and is going to continue for years and we’re going to reimagine police work in this country. And I think that a lot of police welcome it. Police shouldn’t necessarily be going out on three Oh two calls there’s we should have more mental health work out in the field. The problem is police have become the group where whenever there’s a problem, you call police and ask them to fix it. And that’s the mentality of police is they never say no. So even if it’s not necessarily what they’re trained to do, please do handle, please handle everything so that the rest of us don’t have to, they are on a daily basis.

Speaker 3 (00:31:11):

See, see the most, see the craziest that we have to offer in society. I, you know, it, it was strange for me because during the pandemic, at the beginning of the pandemic and before what happened to Minneapolis and the civil unrest that followed the biggest problem for this police department was that they were too popular with the pandemic and everyone being locked down and in their homes, there was just constant requests for parades. My son is turning five and it’s his birthday. And he loves police. Can we do a parade pass? That was the biggest problem. Was there were too many requests for parades for police to go to people’s houses. And it was, it was stretched. You know, we couldn’t handle all of the requests. Police were too popular and then overnight it changed. And I think people understand why, but they just continue going to work and hope that they can have a voice as we move forward and reimagine police. And it’s, it’s the nature of the business, you know, one day you’re too popular and the next day you’re the evil the evil organization in the world.

Speaker 2 (00:32:18):

It’s just, it’s just scary to me as I sit on the sidelines and just watch it, not in, not in it, like you’re in it. And I see the voices or voices of two extremes, far light, far right. Far left, just like in mayor Peduto, his recent quote, a Twitter quote. It’s just all too. And if I say, you know, there’s a feeling and you don’t have to come in, but there’s a feeling among, you know, in America right now. And I have it where if I say, if I tell a certain person or certain people, or maybe on my Facebook feed, that, you know, I support our police now I’m racist. And it’s like, can’t you, can’t you support police reform and B be absolutely against what happened in Minneapolis or racial profiling, you know, and also support the police. It’s like, we’ve gone so far from just reasonability. And that’s very frustrating. I’m sure. I’m sure it frustrates you to see it as well.

Speaker 3 (00:33:26):

Yeah. And so, you know, you mentioned social media, there, there came a point where you know, for a while we felt like we had to pull back and kind of just not post anything because the reaction was just so overwhelmingly negative to anything that goes through

Speaker 2 (00:33:43):

Anything you said. Yeah. But then is that okay then? What about the people in the middle that want the information, then there were isolated were bullied being bold.

Speaker 3 (00:33:52):

Eventually I just came to the decision and I just told everyone in my office, don’t read the comments, just we have, we have what we, we have a responsibility to inform and to get word out. And if we post something and the responses are all vulgar and some of the violent, sort of just don’t pay attention. And let’s just, we know who these people are that we represent and we’re proud to represent them. And we also know that reform is coming and we welcome it. And so we’re just, we just try not to let outside forces change who we are. We’re going to continue being in a progressive police department. We’re going to continue trying to build relationships with the community. And as a PIO office, we’re going to continue trying to tell the whole story. Even if we get shot, shouted down from time to time.

Speaker 2 (00:34:40):

Good for you. I mean, that’s leadership, that’s leadership. You know, and then if you don’t, and then the thing, if you, if you stop communicating and you, you don’t say anything, you know, there’s that good, old information vacuum, someone else is gonna fill it, right? So that’s, that’s a communications tip. I tell, you know, oftentimes crisis communications clients, they they’re afraid of criticism, right. They know, let’s say the client knows that whatever they say, they’re going to get some dissenters. So they’re like, screw this. I’m not going to say anything worse than you can do. As, you know, as a former journalist, worst thing you can do, you have to, you have to just like, you know, you have to realize the world’s not there, but everyone’s gonna like what you say, but you have a story of talent if you don’t tell it somebody else, and then tell it for you

Speaker 3 (00:35:34):

And police, I think right now, or have been for for many months now in a position of no matter what they do, they’re wrong. And an example that I, that I bring up was there was one protest in the, in the strip district where there was one person who was live-streaming it and spent hours seeking out police and, and yelling at them and saying, you’re not welcome here. You’re keep in mind. The reason why police attend to these cycle units is to close down roads around the protesters to keep them safe. We saw it in Charlottesville. We saw it the Rosfeld trial, u, the North shore. There are people who will just drive through crowds of people and police are there to make sure that that doesn’t happen. Police are there to protect them. So just want to make that point first, but this person spends hours yelling at police and telling him to leave, and you’re not welcome here.

Speaker 3 (00:36:30):

And, and then the person finds out that a one of their bike marshals have been assaulted by a motorist who didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t ride down the street. And instantly the person who for two hours has been yelling to police and telling them to leave changed instantly. And it’s all on Facebook lives and starts looking for police to yell at them, to do their jobs. Why aren’t you protecting us, do your jobs. And it was like that. And I just watched that and they said, nah, you can’t win. I mean, police for two hours, we’re getting yelled at for being there. And then for two hours after we’re yelled at for not protecting it, it just didn’t

Speaker 2 (00:37:10):

Well that, I think that says everything about some of the people who are protesting

Speaker 3 (00:37:16):

Well. And I want to make sure that I’m clear on this. The vast majority of people were wonderful. I mean, we’re were great. And if I wasn’t doing this job and working during those protests, I probably would have been with them. You know, I’m not afraid to say black lives do matter, and these protests had to happen. They were meaningful peaceful ones, I should say. But I think, I think, and there was a lot of emotion driving them. And I think now that as we begin this national conversation, my hope is that the emotion can remain, but that will become more thoughtful and methodical in how we, if we’re going to talk about defunding or re-imagining okay, but let’s make sure that we get it right. Let’s make sure that the decisions that we make now are decisions that are going to be in place for generations to come. We don’t want to be doing this again in five years.

Speaker 2 (00:38:14):

Right. Right. And I think we also have to matter that there’s a lot, there’s still a lot of crime in the city and throughout all cities in America, but there’s still a lot of crime and like violent crime and people, whenever there’s violent crime, you want a police officer there right away. You don’t want to wait. And when I was press secretary, I remember how every single council person, including Bill Peduto wanted more police officers pushing to get police officers added to the budget. Right. And I think, I remember we went up, I could, I don’t know why I know this number, but we went from like 900 to nine, 10 or something. That’s all we could afford to do. And it was a big to do, it was a big press release and probably a press conference too. And, you know, the all neighborhoods, they wanted their beat cops back. They wanted their neighborhood cops back. And you know, my fear is if, if, if cities go too far in and removing that presence, is there going to be an, and if crime goes up, if violent crime goes up, is there going to be a shift the other way? And then we’re going back to square one remains to be seen.

Speaker 3 (00:39:33):

Yeah. If you, when we, when we make cuts to police departments, what are the first things that go, it’s the stuff that everyone likes the community outreach? The I know in DC, I, you know, I was in DC for the inauguration working with the metropolitan police they had yeah. Last week really, really quickly though, the first thing that they, they had to make some cuts because council immediately cut some of their budgets. So what was the first thing that went? It was the amount of unit. And that’s the type of stuff that people want from their police departments because come out to units, everyone likes horses and they’re part of the community outreach to D C yeah, they, they there’s an organization called the major city chiefs association, which is, you know, as it sounds, the police chiefs from all the major cities in the U S and that they have monthly conference calls and we, as PIO is also have monthly conference calls and they just figured it would be a good time to get some of the better storytellers in the country, PIO storytellers together to sort of together in one place for a few days to, to come up with a plan to better tell the story of police.

Speaker 3 (00:40:57):

So they asked police from Pittsburgh Albuquerque, Kansas city and Mountain View, California to go out because it was a perfect opportunity to meet with thousands of police officers who were in the city from all around the country. And so we just went around and talked to people and said, ah, why did you become a police officer? And we’ll just try to tell the story a little bit more effectively.

Speaker 2 (00:41:23):

Yeah. I guess, I guess one of the problems I would imagine many police officers have is the problem of who speaks for me. Who’s my, who who’s, who’s representing me and who, who is my voice. You know, you, you didn’t have union officials that could be a voice, but it’s, I think it’s tougher for any leader to really stick up for police right now. It’s tough because you’re getting pummeled, you’re going to, you’re the cancel culture. You, you know, you might be impacted it, be careful what you say, be very careful with your words. But I think what you said is, is awesome. You know, black lives do matter, right? Absolutely. I would be protesting them again, but also our police are awesome. Most of our police are awesome. And it’s the two can coexist any, any interesting stories from the inauguration. And, and talking with police officers, any, any, any ahas that you pulled away from that?

Speaker 3 (00:42:29):

I think my favorite moment, I did so many interviews with so many police officers from different departments. But my favorite moment was there was an officer named Stephen Benson for metropolitan police department who was sort of assigned to the PIOs to drive us wherever we needed to go to and from the hotel, because the city was so locked down we couldn’t, we needed checkpoints in the city that we lived in a marked unit to drive us back and forth from the hotel. But you know, we, we got to know him really well. And you know, he’s he’s a black man from Washington, DC, who is now a police officer there. And I, I spoke to him and I, I, you know, I asked him, I was like, we’re starting this process of reimagining police.

Speaker 3 (00:43:19):

Like w what do you think about that? And what do you think that the public maybe doesn’t realize about police and what they’re thinking about the process of re-imagining police and his response to me was wonderful. And he said, we’re talking about reimagining police. Well, why do you think I joined police? I grew up a black man in America. I had those experiences where I was, where I felt like I was harassed by police or unfairly targeted by police. I joined police because I want to re-imagine police. That’s why all of us joined, because we’re thinking about how to reimagine police every single day. So now this is great. The process is now going to include everyone. It’s not just me. It’s not just me, the black man who w who joined the police department, because he wanted to make change. Now everyone’s on board now let’s all get together and let’s reimagine police. So just the idea that it’s not just a vocal group of protesters who are talking about re-imagining police, it’s the police themselves were like, yes, yes. This is why I joined. I think that we can do things better and let’s, let’s figure out a way to do it. So that’s, [inaudible], it is absolutely time to  embrace. And re-imagine the wool of police work in a way that works for everyone. And I think that that’s the philosophy that everyone’s going to have moving forward.

Speaker 2 (00:44:46):

I love it. How, how is the Pittsburgh police union? How truly I have not been following following much police news closely. I apologize. I apologize. I’ve been kind of busy. I’ve been kind of busy here, but, but how has the police union responding to reform? What are they for? What are they against? Is it been, has it been a collaborative process? Because that’s always the problem. I mean, let’s face it. Everybody wants things to be better. You know, I think most people know that police can be re-imagined way that’s positive for, for everyone, but it’s not easy to make change happen, always. Especially longstanding institutional change, you know, in a lot of times it’s some unions get in the way. How, how has it been

Speaker 3 (00:45:46):

I can tell you with all honesty. I don’t know. I do not represent, I do not represent them.

Speaker 2 (00:45:52):

We’ll get one, we’ll get one, two on next week and I’m kidding it. I’m not going to get that into the details, but I just, I was curious because that’s part of the communications puzzle too. I mean, you know, right.

Speaker 3 (00:46:03):

But in all seriousness, I represent the department. But I do not represent the unions, the unions I have no I have no involvement with them. We don’t communicate. So I can’t speak for the unions in any way.

Speaker 2 (00:46:20):

Right, right. Okay. All right. Couple more things I wanted to ask you. So, and then I know I only have an hour of your time, so we’re, we’re coming up to that hour. So in 2018, you took this role in the media had already been going through changes then, right. You know, local media was cut, significantly, had been being cut shifts were made, but in the past year, since we’ve been in this pandemic, any insights into how you’ve seen the media further change has the media. And this is, I’m not trying to lead you into this, but are you seeing an increased polarization and coverage in local media?

Speaker 3 (00:47:06):

No. I’m glad that you brought this around because we can talk more about Sandy Tolliver. I mean, you, Sandy to me is the sort of the, the, the line she wants. She represents what journalism used to be, which was thoughtfulness and thoroughness and attention to detail. No left the Trib. She, I believe she was working for the Hill now. So she’s still in journalism, which is

Speaker 2 (00:47:36):

Sandy was a consultant with Premo for a number of years as well. And, and she missed, she missed being a, being a journalist, but we still work together. I love Sandy.

Speaker 3 (00:47:46):

I was the luckiest reporter at the trim because she was my editor from day one. And even as she was promoted and no longer had reporters below her, she kept me. So she, she got promoted and left all of the reporters that she used to oversee, but kept me I think probably because I was a, a problem child and nobody else wanted to deal with me. But she, I mean, that’s what we’re missing now because, and newsrooms have been cut back. There’s so much institutional knowledge that is no longer in the game. I mean, I look at the trip and you look at the, the, the leaders that were with Sandy Tolliver Bob fryer Frank Craig, Jim Cuddy thick, that’s a ton of institutional knowledge and they’re all out of the local market. They’re no longer here. And so newsrooms are suffering as a result. We don’t have enough tolerance in, in news anymore. And I’m gonna

Speaker 2 (00:48:51):

Title this episode that I’m, it’s going to be the title of stuff. So where’s Sandy, we need more Sandy’s you know, something, something I’ve noticed is, and, you know, to be honest, we do, we are more national in scope now, and we don’t do as much like local media placement in the Western market, but we still do it. And so when I have done it in the past year, I’ve noticed that there’s less like hutzpah from, from editors on down to like, get the story like, to like really. And, and I mean, I have, I’m, I’m pretty, you know, when I have a job to do I do my best to get done, if I need to place a store, I do my best to get it done, but I’m in a position now where I don’t take on clients, if it’s not a really good story. I don’t, because then I won’t be successful.

Speaker 2 (00:49:47):

So I can say, no, I say that because it’s, it’s hard to get. It’s hard to get that passion from many in the local media, it still exists. But I can tell you recently when I was helping a university with a crisis that involved, you know, had many what’s the word I’m looking for? The BL it was the crisis was overshadowed by the BLM movement. And when we tried to correct the record and help get the story out you know, it was, it was, it was late doing that, but the story was still out there and still being reported on. So we do, you know, the three things you have to do, you know, provide, give access to information. If you, if you want to correct a story or tell the story that hasn’t been told, you have to give a reporter access to the information, right?

Speaker 2 (00:50:47):

You have to do that. And sometimes that involves me telling my client, and most, like most of the time, their lawyers, like we have to do this, sorry, lawyer we’re doing it. Then we found the lawyer and then he finally works. And then providing somebody so access to the information and then providing somebody to talk about that information. So it’s not as much as where you can just say here, read this and write on it. Reporters need to have somebody that they can ask questions to, and they need a voice and sometimes, you know, face. And what’s the third thing. So access to information, having somebody to speak on it and, you know, no, the third thing is it really has to be like new information, right. Newsworthy salient. So even when we would do those three things I found that there’s third, like it was too controversial for the reporters to touch.

Speaker 2 (00:51:44):

They didn’t, they didn’t want to do it. And that was disheartening for me. But it, it reminded me of the importance of, of having it doesn’t matter if you’re a PIO department, if you’re a nonprofit, if you’re an F school, if you’re, you have to have your own media, you have to treat yourself as your own media organization and be ready to get information out quickly to your stakeholders. And most people still don’t do that. And most organizations still don’t think that they should do that. And a lot of them are afraid to do that. Right. Well, I can control this. The power can be in my hands will, well, you know, analysis paralysis, right.

Speaker 3 (00:52:25):

You know, it, I remember in, in 2012 and this was, this was another Sandy Tolliver idea. They sent, she sent me to all of the political battleground States before the presidential election Obama and Mitt Romney. And so I w I traveled to North Carolina New Hampshire Virginia, Florida Iowa, Wisconsin, all of the battleground States. I went there to, to report stories in advance of the presidential election. And after each story would publish, I would get hate mail from Democrats and Republicans. And that was how I knew I was doing my job. Right. Because everyone was at me. And I feel like sometimes now nobody’s willing to, to do anything controversial. They’re just going to write what the, they, they, they know what the narrative is, and they’re just going to stick to that. Even if they see something different and scares me, and it doesn’t take, it takes zero courage. And if you’re going to be a journalist, you need to, every act that you do as a journalist needs to have courage behind it. And I feel like that’s kind of lacking. And, and a lot of people’s sort of you know, use the the, the, the reporter’s notebook in the back pocket as I’m a reporter, therefore reminds me of a conversation I had with a local reporter. We, we have coffee one time because we were having issues with each other.

Speaker 2 (00:54:14):

What news outlet like PA print, radio TV.

Speaker 3 (00:54:19):

Well, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, Oh, we’ll talk offline on that. But you know, and the point that this reporter made to me was this, this garbage that every cop is a hero. I don’t buy it. And let’s so let’s start there. It’s not true that like, just because you wear a badge, doesn’t make you a hero. And I said, okay, that’s fine. I might argue that, but I’ll, I’ll grant that point if you’re willing to grant that, just because you put one of these in your back pocket doesn’t mean you’re good. Doing good, good work. There are good journalists. And I do want to stress that even though we’re sort of presenting a pretty pessimistic view of the local media market, there are a ton of really good reporters in the city. And there are a lot of journalists who are still doing. You don’t seem like you believe me there.

Speaker 2 (00:55:12):

No, no, no. I think here’s what I think. I think that it’s, I think there’s, it’s more editor, editor, leadership driven than ever before. Okay. And in most outlets. So depending on the CA if they’re Sandy tall over or not, the person who’s going to get us particular beat, that might be really important is giving to have the same viewpoints is that editor is going to follow the narrative, follow the narrative kid. And you know what you’ll rise.

Speaker 3 (00:55:42):

I think that the, the, the real root of the problem with local journalism is that the editor level, I think that the editors who were there for years and years have all been either forced to retire or left of their own volition. And what you have now is are people who shouldn’t be editors and have no institutional knowledge. I think that the problem with where local media is coming up short, starts at the top with ownership management, and that there are still out there working beats reporters who are trying and are good and are talented, but they have no support from above. That’s where I think the problem is.

Speaker 2 (00:56:21):

Yeah. Wow. That’s a good way to put it. How do we change it? What do we do? I mean, we’ll have to change it, but like, how does change we’re up? I mean, everything’s ever been, this is a year of change. We’re going to change this. We’re going to change that we’re going to, right? How do we begin…? I think the first step to changing something is to say there’s problem. Right. But how, how, I mean, how do we get our outlets? And it’s not even just local, just to be more focused on talent, both sides and more curious and less judgmental. I don’t know how,

Speaker 3 (00:57:04):

I don’t know how either you know, I’m no longer a journalist because there’s, there’s really no place for me locally anymore. I could’ve left Pittsburgh and I decided not to but you know, the, the, the job that I did as a reporter was to be methodical take time to tell the story and make sure that I got it right. I didn’t care about being first. I’ve cared about being right. And I did deep dives and stuff that takes time, and that position doesn’t exist anymore locally. And that’s our fault as news consumers. I mean, when it comes down to it, it’s your fault. And it’s my fault. As news consumers, we stopped reporting. If, if, if local consumers would support local news, then there wouldn’t have been all of these cutbacks. And again, to your point earlier, it’s probably social media. There’s, there’s a number of factors, but the bottom line is we stopped supporting local news. So,

Speaker 2 (00:58:04):

I mean, I, I have my subscriptions to that too, you know, that I pay for there’s, I’m not going to say there’s certain ones. I, I, I won’t give to for a reason, right. Reason, but,

Speaker 3 (00:58:20):

And it’s local. My subscriptions are national because I’m with everything that’s happening at certain nice meeting, and I’m not going to call anyone out by name, but, you know, we’re all aware of yeah. Of what’s happening at certain local outlets. And I, I can’t, I can’t give them money until, you know, they fix what’s happening there. So I, I, I share respect.

Speaker 2 (00:58:50):

It’s more like, you know, if, if, if our country is living organism, the cells are sick. Right. And I think, I think our country has a lot of work to do on, on just decorum, reasonability niceness, kindness, all of that. And we’ve gotten so far farsighted and the, the fourth tenant of democracy, right. Our news media ideologues are running, are running it, not actual journalists. And, and that’s the problem. Yeah. Yeah.

Speaker 3 (00:59:34):

Oh, we can’t even as a country. Agree on. What’s a fact. So it’s not, it’s not just having,

Speaker 2 (00:59:42):

It’s crazy. And I’m seeing, and I’m telling you that, you know, there’s, there’s national reporters who I used to have a lot of respect for who, who are so clearly have such a clear bias is such a clear agenda that I’ve watched. I mean, it could be, you know, on CBS Sunday morning, like shows that I watch all the time, meet the press. Those kinds of shows where I’m so frustrated because I’m watching these journalists act like people with agendas, not journalists. And, and then I don’t trust. I don’t trust what I’m watching anymore. I don’t trust it. But anyways well, we’ll follow this closely. And in the meantime, we’ll just keep trying to control what we can’t control, which is our own, our own networks, our own social networks. I want to thank you for your time. I could talk to you for forever. You have so many good insights and you are doing an amazing job. So when you do take the leap, it better be as an editor or a publisher for a local news organization. And then I will be certain to subscribe and tell all of my friends to subscribe as well.

Speaker 3 (01:01:00):

Yeah, I am. I’m loving my time as PIO, but again, I’m a journalist. I was born to be a journalist and I, I eventually would like to get back in

Speaker 2 (01:01:12):

And you’ll be back. I know you’re back. And you know, this is going to make you so much better. You’re going to be like,

Speaker 3 (01:01:18):

I feel like, I feel like it’s giving me a different perspective. You know, I, I don’t know if you’ve ever read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irvin. There’s a, there’s a part in there where John Irvin writes that every American should be forced to live outside of the country for two years, just so that you get the chance to watch how others perceive you and how you behave when you’re not there. It, it gives you a new appreciation for what America is and what it means to, I feel like I’ve gotten that opportunity by stepping away from journalism and working on this side for three years. I’m now looking back in and going, that’s what needs to be fixed and that’s what needs to be fixed. And that shouldn’t be like that. And when I get back in if I, if I get back in, then I’ll, I’ll be better prepared because of my experience here. So we’ll see.

Speaker 2 (01:02:09):

Awesome. Well, thank you for your time and best of luck dealing with what will certainly be a difficult year for public safety departments. And I’m hoping that things come down and that, you know, protests are peaceful, that, that the mayor isn’t attacked by anyone. Right. And that there’s a lot of respect, so, yeah.

Speaker 1 (01:02:35):

Thanks, Chris. Appreciate it.

EPISODES

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ON CRISIS: EPISODE 5

Aurora’s leadership talks about the company’s work with self-driving vehicles, the long-term communications mindset, and why aggressive communications on the company’s “safety first” commitment is paramount.

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ON CRISIS: EPISODE 4

Allison Bentley talks about applying her lessons-learned at an international retail company to help differentiate a new startup in an evolving industry from its many competitors.

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 3

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 3

Top legal mind who represents dozens of school districts, Ira Weiss, discusses the importance of having a robust school district communications plan, especially right now.

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 2

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 2

Senior Managing Director of a large independent advisory firm, Mike Shebak, shares how they pivoted daily client communications during the COVID-19 crisis.

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 1

ON CRISIS: EPISODE 1

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rich Lord talks about the changing media landscape and what that means for managing news media during crises.

THE “ON CRISIS” PODCAST

Hosted by Joanna Doven, Premo CEO and one of the youngest big city mayoral press secretaries in the United States, On Crisis is a podcast that delves into a daunting challenge that all sectors inevitably face: how to skillfully navigate a crisis. Joined by guest speakers of all industries, Doven takes you “inside the crisis,” discussing real-time decision-making and providing helpful takeaways that can be applied to any business plan. New episodes airing regularly. Check back soon! 

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