Get A Leg Up

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Ron Ciancutti made an excellent point about the media in PRB November’s “A Step Ahead” column titled “Feeding Frenzy--Media Answers Demand For Negativity.”

Ron laments the overall negative approach taken by the media and public during the oil spill in the Gulf and how that coverage tended to fan the flames of blame in both the government and the public. He yearns for a more compassionate and respectful response.

However, for parks and recreation professionals, the media can be a valuable asset to our operation. But first we need to understand what the media need so we can help them help us.

Qualifying Statements

Just to note my own credibility in this matter, I was a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps. Part of my job was to instruct Marines in how to deal with the print and electronic media, while at the same time helping the media obtain information and access to keep the American public informed about Marines.

The media are a dual-edged sword that can cut both ways. As with any sharp tool, if you handle it enough, you will eventually get cut. No matter how careful you are, there will come a time you say, or do, the wrong thing, and it will cut you. Ask former BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg after his inept comment about caring for “the small people.”

As parks and rec professionals and as public administrators, we must ensure that the public--often via the media--understands what we are all about and why we are important. If the public understands that during good times, citizens will be more inclined to support us in bad times, like the tough economic times we are now experiencing.

I have previously written about taking our message directly to the various public audiences in the community, such as civic groups, homeowners associations, etc. But collectively those people represent only a fraction of the entire population, so there are many more people not receiving our message. The media can help.

The Upper Hand

Ron is correct in assuming that most media are normally seeking the negative because it sells. Our job is to make sure good things are heard too. Did the department win an award? Let them know! Did a staff member receive a special certification or higher degree? Let them know! Did an instructor or student in a class overcome obstacles to be there? Let them know!

As this positive news filters into the public’s eye, a positive attitude will be fostered towards your employees as individuals and towards the overall operation. The news will humanize the department rather than cast it in the light of being “part of the bureaucracy.”

The message has to be constant and consistent; not always an easy thing to achieve, but well worth the effort.

It is critical to learn how the media obtain information, especially in the age of digital, global news exchange. Even dinosaurs like me have to learn the new waves. What format do they use, how much space do they need to fill, when do they need it? Answers to these and similar questions are needed in order to know how best to send information to the media.

Because there is so much information that media members have to keep up on, the more we as parks and rec professionals can give them what they’re looking for, in the form they need, and when they need it, the better our chances are of its being transmitted to our audience.

Studying Media

I’m not sure how much of this media approach is taught in recreation schooling, but I sense it isn’t much. Considering the importance of public information in parks and recreation, it seems logical that a significant block of study and practice should be devoted to it. Maybe someone out there can enlighten me.

Like Ron, I yearn for a more tolerant and balanced world where common understanding can foster good relations among people. It isn’t an impossible dream. But maybe, in our own small way, we public administrators can use the media tools available to foster better understanding of what we do. Today, recreation … tomorrow, world peace.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail