Joe Dillon saw a need for the city of Columbus in the wake of the Ricky Ball shooting and former police chief Tony Carleton’s subsequent resignation.
The city, Dillon said, received negative attention after local and far-reaching national media outlets alike reported the story, which spread further through social media.
“The city was getting beat up pretty heavily,” he said. “Social media, Facebook, Twitter, all these things. The city was just getting beat up unfairly, and it was because they weren’t telling their side of the story.”
Dillon, an independent contractor, will now try to handle that job as the new public relations coordinator for the city. The city council unanimously voted to hire him during its Tuesday meeting. Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said Dillon will work on a year-to-year contract with a $24,000 annual contract fee.
Dillon approached Columbus Mayor Robert Smith roughly four months ago to talk about finding a way to share the city’s side of events. In the following weeks the city — working with Dillon, who volunteered his time — began issuing press releases to keep the public abreast of developing situations as they happened or to provide advance notice of things such as the Magby Creek bridge’s closure for emergency repairs earlier this month.
The idea of Columbus having a PR official isn’t new — Smith presented the idea to the council a year ago, but it was ultimately tabled due to budgetary concerns. He hopes the position to combat complaints of non-transparency regarding himself and the council.
“We said we’d be transparent and a public relations person is another conduit,” Smith said.
Following Dillon’s discussion with Smith, the city advertised for the position again in January. The city advertised the job as a full-time position paying $38,000 to $42,000 per year. Smith said officials decided after the interviews to go with a part-time, independent contractor instead.
The decision results in cost savings for the city, from both the reduced salary for part-time work and by not having to pay for benefits for a full-time employee, Smith said.
Four people applied for the post and the city interviewed three, and the city didn’t indicate to applicants that it might consider a part-time position, he added.
Dillon’s work with the city was taken into consideration after the interviews, Smith said, — but he asserts that, beyond that, Dillon was the most qualified candidate.
“Whoever we hired, the naysayers would have something negative to say,” Smith said. “The thing I’d say to them is that he’s well qualified. Joe has done an outstanding job for us free of charge. That was taken under consideration. But besides that, (including) from an experience standpoint, I have no regrets from a personal standpoint as far as us hiring him.”
Dillon has roots in public relations and working with the press. He covered baseball games at Propst Park for The Dispatch in the mid-1970s and worked on news for the paper in the 1980s while he was in college at Mississippi State University. He was the editor of The Reflector while at MSU, and for nine years, starting in the early 2000s, wrote the “Business Bus” column for The Dispatch.
“There’s two sides to every story, and the city just hasn’t had anyone to tell their side of the story,” Dillon said. “It’s not because city officials are hiding. It’s not because they are trying to confuse people. It’s simply because they haven’t had anyone to go out and to say, ‘Here’s the city’s side of this issue.'”
Outside of his work with the city, Dillon owns Sign and Banner Express, which designs signs, lettering, banners and installs alarm systems.
From Dillon’s perspective, the biggest change since he started volunteering has been that the city has taken a more proactive stance in putting out information.
“In today’s world, you can literally broadcast a rumor, or what you claim, (and it) is a around the world in minutes,” Dillon said. “If we can put the facts out there as we know them, as soon as we know them, then it informs the public of what we know and what’s being worked on.”
Dillon said his job will be two-fold: to quickly disseminate information on urgent matters and to help highlight things the city is doing.
To help with that, Dillon said the city will soon launch its own Twitter account to provide updates on city items. The police department launched its own account, @Columbus_MS_PD, in November and has made heavy use of it since then, including as an outlet for city updates.
The city is working to get its account verified and that it should launch by the end of the month, he added.
An important part of his job, Dillon said, is taking issues that can often be complex and parsing them down so that it’s easy for the public to understand them.
The first time he and Smith met to discuss a press release, he said Smith already knew the answers to what information the city wanted to release. The challenge wasn’t finding the information, but figuring out how to effectively share it.
He said that challenge is compounded in the social media age, where people look for condensed, quickly understandable information.
“Government officials talk like government officials,” he said. “There’s not that much space in a newspaper or on the TV news, so you have to make it to where the readers and viewers can grasp it quickly.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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