They are not elected by Utahns to do anything, but they speak for those who are.
They do not fight the fires, arrest the criminals or piece together details at the accident scene, but they recount the facts and circumstances as if they were there.They are the gatekeepers of the public's information - and they walk the fine line between the interest of the agencies they are hired to promote and the public they are obligated to serve.
Will the gate be pushed open or pulled closed? Will society be better informed or better manipulated by the preferred message?
Utah schools, led by a nationally recognized public relations program at Brigham Young University, keep the local market glutted with well-qualified, entry-level employees. But there are increasing numbers of jobs to fill, according to industry experts.
Utah's state government employs 35 people in public-relations functions, a total that does not include some employees who do public relations as part of other jobs. West Valley City and Layton police departments recently hired their first public-information officers.
These people write press releases and answer inquiries from residents and dozens of Utah television, radio and newspaper entities.
This trend has great implications for how information gets passed to the public. Olympic organizers' attempt to clamp down on leaks could set an example for even more agencies to limit access.
"It's one of those dual-edged swords," said DeAnn Evans, a former newspaper editor and now a journalism professor at the University of Utah.
"If you have someone you know you can get to on deadline they can be indispensable. It's great, you're ahead of the game. But if that person is going to be a hurdle, it can be very detrimental."
"Public relations" can serve an invaluable role during large community projects like the rebuilding of I-15.
A team provides reporters with up-to-the-minute details about construction and road closings. Transportation officials estimated last year they would spend $4 million to $7 million on public information during the construction.
In most cases, like this one, the system works well.
When a sheriff's lieutenant was shot in the head last fall in a standoff with a Magna man, reporters from every Salt Lake news agency stopped what they were doing and sped to the West Valley neighborhood.
In the chaos of the five-hour conflict - a shootout neighbors described as something out of a television drama - someone had to answer reporters' questions and provide the public information.
Was the officer dead or alive? Had other officers been injured?
How did the fray start? Who was the shooter and why was he distraught? How many bullets had he fired from his Chinese assault rifle?
When 18 elementary school students in Riverton were hospitalized in late February with rashes, watery eyes, headaches and nausea, someone had to ferry information to worried parents and resi-dents.
What caused the illness? Are the children safe? When will classes resume?
In both cases, employees designated to handle public relations came to the media's assistance: It wasn't Riverton Elementary principal Bonnie Dahl answering questions in the face of the crisis, it was Jordan School District spokeswoman Melinda Rock.
A reporter's job is straightforward: to assess what details best suit the public need, to gather the appropriate information, and to compile information in an accurate, fair, easy-to-read representation of the details.
Some public-information officers consistently get kudos from Deseret News reporters for fairness and accessibility:
- Palmer DePaulis, chief of staff and top spokesperson for Attorney General Jan Graham, took over public-relations duties when a funding trim sent an attorney who was handling public relations back to the ranks.
DePaulis, former mayor of Salt Lake City, is accessible and quick to gather information for Graham, whose commitments frequently take her out of the office and make her unavailable.
- Klint Anderson, public information officer for the Weber County Sheriff's Office returns calls promptly. If he doesn't know the answer to a question, he immediately goes after the information and updates reporters on his progress.
- Kent Gardner, head spokesman for the Granite School District, has a wealth of knowledge about the state's largest school district. He carefully balances a sensitivity for reporters' need for quick information with a responsibility to protect student privacy rights.
- Jim Braden, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Commission, provides good support information for a fairly visible and verbal commission. He provides documentation and background easily, prompt-ly returns phone calls and is aware of deadlines. He is also opinionated and will give reporters feedback about stories.
Companies and agencies are becoming more savvy about their relations with the press and public, and more are hiring employees to chart the information course.
Ted Nguyen was hired four years ago as West Valley City's first public-relations person. And although he provides people a lot of information, Nguyen tries to stay behind the cameras, not in front of them.
Reporters must have access to those who are closest to a particular issue, he said. "That's who normal people want to hear from. They don't want to hear from a spokesman."
Nyugen said his job is to keep the city out of "crisis mode."
"The closed agency environment causes distress among the public," he said. "With a closed, unresponsive system, the potential for crisis is increased. People become so paranoid about what's going on or how it's going to look that it creates more problems than just being open or honest about things.'
It's a "management problem" that's a function of a relatively new profession, said Kenny Thomas, president of Public Relations Society of America's 120-member Intermountain chapter. Some managers have been slow to understand how the press works. "We want to give the information, but sometimes management doesn't."
This puts public-relations people in the awkward position of speaking in the place of the official elected by citizens.
When the Salt Lake City Council late last summer released its final report on Deedee Corradini's solicitation of gifts, the public would have expected to see the mayor respond. Instead, Corradini's office sent out a one-paragraph statement, and calls to the mayor were returned by her spokesman, Ken Connaughton.
The same scenario occurs in other offices.
When a reporter recently attempted to set up an interview with state Olympic Coordinator John Fowler, Gov. Mike Leavitt's spokeswoman, Vicki Varela, arranged for the interview to be held in her office - with her present.
And it was Varela who did much of the talking during the interview, which focused on the use of state tax dollars for the 2002 Winter Games. That's been a controversial issue for the governor since his trip to the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, with Fowler.
The 2002 Winter Games are being run by the largely privately funded Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which has recently adopted a get-tough policy aimed at stopping leaks to the press.
At a recent SLOC board of trustees meeting, members were warned against releasing confidential information to the public. Doing so could get them dismissed from the board under a proposed bylaw change.
It's not just board members that Olympic organizers want to keep from talking to the media. Besides SLOC's chairman, Bob Garff, and chief executive officer, Frank Joklik, only the three-person public-relations department is supposed to speak.
"Loose lips sink ships," said trustee Lillian Taylor, who proposed the bylaw change. Leaks to the media are "a detriment to what we're doing as a board."
SLOC employees are under orders to refer reporters to the public-relations department and can also be fired for revealing any information considered confidential.
In some other cases, the public information officer - the PIO as they are known - slows down the process when speed and accessibility are crucial.
Tax matters are complicated.
The Utah State Tax Commission has a spokeswoman, Janice Perry Gully, a former newspaper reporter, who recently told commission staff members that all media requests were to go through her.
Gully believes her job is first to present the Tax Commission's point of view. "This is a big, complex agency," she said. "I've been here long enough I know who is best to go to to get information. If I get conflicting information (from several agency employees), I sort that out and give the correct information to the reporter or the public."
Gully is also watchful of confidentiality rules, so she closely monitors what information is appropriate to be released.
So, reporters who know they need information from Chief Economist Doug Macdonald must first call Gully. She calls Macdonald and gets the question answered.
But if the reporter has follow-up questions, Gully, who isn't an economist or a tax expert, often has to recontact Macdonald. This can seem an arduous process for a reporters who could have interviewed the source themselves.
Why not just put the reporter or public through to the appropriate person directly?
"Sometimes I will get the (agency) person on the line in a telephone conference so the reporter can talk directly to the person," she said. But Gully always listens in and makes clarifying comments when appropriate.
But some of Gully's colleagues have taken the opposite tack.
Randy Ripplinger, spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said in his 21/2 years in state government he's tried to decentralize the information flow. The former television reporter said he came into the job with the goal of helping state employees learn to deal with the media.
When he was interviewed for the job, Ripplinger was asked if he'd do all the media interviews. He said his goal was to do none of them.
"My vision would be I would be a consultant. I would be an expert. I would provide training. I would provide backup. But in the ideal world, the people who possess the information would be the ones who deliver the information."
PRSA is encouraged about the future of the profession, said Thomas.
"As we're moving into the info age . . . the way groups and interest are becoming diversified, interests becoming segmented, we need people who have the ability to communicate the right message - that's becoming more sophisticated."