The communications issues at the Portland Bureau of Transportation just got worse. After hearing about it yesterday from Bureau sources, I’ve now confirmed with the Mayor’s office that PBOT’s two current public information officers — Dan Anderson and Cheryl Kuck — are on their way out. No official statements have been made, but sources say Kuck has moved over to the Bureau of Environmental Services and Anderson is taking a job up in Washington.
“Cheryl and I are both leaving the bureau on great terms. The timing is a coincidence,” said Anderson via email this morning.
Communications have long been a trouble spot for PBOT and in recent years a lack of resources and staff at that position has led to a number of PR missteps that have hurt both the bureau and bicycling in general (“Blood in the bike lanes,” “sewer money for bike lanes” and the SE Holgate controversy being just a few examples).
In April 2011, in an address to the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, former Bureau Director Tom Miller said, “I think that recently the bureau has suffered and consequently the perception of bicycling has suffered. A large part of this was the lack of effort the bureau has placed on communications. I believe very firmly that PBOT has done very well for bicycling in previous years, but its gotten tarred-and-feathered for it as well. The bureau needs to own up to the fact that we haven’t managed communication as effectively as we needed to.”
Miller believed strongly that in order for PBOT to get over the hump and move forward on projects and policies that would live up to our livable streets reputation, the agency needed more firepower in the communications department. He tried on two separate occasions to hire a senior-level Communications Director; but both times bad politics and bad timing stymied those efforts. Most recently, Mayor Hales publicly put a stop on the high-level PBOT public affairs position Miller was seeking.
Anderson and Kuck have done an admirable job; but neither is at the Director level and managing communications for such a large agency is a huge job. Instead of working proactively to create positive narratives for PBOT, battle back when stories spin out of control, and garner support for their initiatives among the press and the public, Anderson and Kuck spent most of their time filling information requests, doing media interviews, writing press releases, updating the PBOT website, monitoring social media, and so on.
PBOT has other staff that could fill a communications role, but that would only be a temporary fix (not to mention it would take staff time form other important duties).
Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, said in an interview today that he’s extremely sad to see both Anderson and Cheryl go. “It’s PBOT’s loss, they were both terrific at their jobs and they’ve been a pleasure to work with for both me and the Mayor.” He said given the upcoming State of the City Address and the finalization of the City Budget in the next few days, Mayor Hales won’t have this issue on his radar for at least another week. In the meantime, Haynes says he’s not sure what they’ll do. “We might go with an interim person, farm it out, I might do some of the work, or I might just get on one knee and beg Cheryl to stay.”
Haynes also said that it’s unlikely any new communications staff would be hired until they select a new PBOT Director — a job left empty when Miller resigned back in January. Hales announced last week that their selection committee has received 44 applications for the position and they hope to have someone hired by May or June.
In the meantime let’s hope there are no bike-related controversies in the next few months.