AUGUSTA — The city should hire a full-time marketing and communications official, according to a recommendation from a committee studying how Augusta could improve its image and spread awareness of its resources and services.

Enough city councilors expressed informal support for the proposal at their informational meeting Thursday that City Manager William Bridgeo said he would include funding for such a position in next year’s proposed budget, after he researches a proposed salary and benefits.

He said councilors could then decide, as they consider his budget proposal, whether to keep that funding in the budget and seek someone for the job.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, who recently took over as chairman of the committee, said right now the city has about 15 pages online representing the city of Augusta’s various departments, and “we have some inconsistencies, to say the least.”

“We want to ensure the message is clear and consistent,” Judkins said. “This has been everybody’s business but nobody’s responsibility. And now it’s time for it to be someone’s responsibility.”

Earlier this year, city councilors set improving communications and marketing for the city as their top goal for the year.

Councilors cited a 2017 controversy involving an online video rant against the city by the owner of the Red Barn restaurant in Augusta — in which the main accusation was erroneous, that spread across the country and received hundreds of thousands of views — as an example of a situation in which having a public relations expert available could have improved the city’s response.

Keith Luke, deputy development director for the city, said having a full-time professional communications person on the city staff back then would not have prevented the Red Barn incident from spreading across social media, but it might have helped mitigate the damage to the city’s reputation.

Keith Luke, deputy director of development services for the city of Augusta, listens during a Central Maine Business Breakfast in April 2019 at the Klahr Center in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

“We’d have an opportunity to make good stories better, and head off difficult situations at the pass, social media-wise,” Luke said of the city having a communications and marketing person at the ready for such situations.

The committee report states the salary for the new position would be in the $60,000 range.

In researching the issue, committee members met with Jessica Grondin, the city of Portland’s director of communications, who oversees Portland’s websites and social media platforms and serves as a point of contact between news media and city officials.

Grondin is paid an annual salary of about $86,000, according to the fiscal year 2019 Portland city budget.

The city of Westbrook also has a director of communications.

Augusta officials previously expressed interest in having a communications official work with both the city and schools. Neither the Portland nor the Westbrook job includes responsibility for communicating with those municipalities’ school systems.

Committee members said in their report they were skeptical the person who takes the position would be able to effectively cover both the city and school system marketing and communications.

Still, Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind advocated for such a structure, and potentially for sharing a communications person — and the cost of the position — with the Greater Augusta Utility District.

“I don’t think the average person, driving around, sees the city, the sewer district and the schools as different,” Lind said. “I think a partnership offers synergy and may lessen the cost for all of us, we all have the same need.”

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said when she used to tell people she lived in Augusta, she would get a negative reaction. She noted, however, that such a perception seems to be changing, including her having spoken with a couple on the coast who said they love shopping in Augusta.

“I see it more as reputational management,” Conti said. “You have to put your message out to counteract all those negative messages coming at you from other sources. That to me is the important thing. We’re really misunderstood by the rest of the state.”

City Manager William Bridgeo speaks in July 2017 at a City Council meeting at City Center in Augusta. At right, Mayor David Rollins. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

Bridgeo said the person hired for the job, if the proposal to create the new position moves forward, would likely serve as a spokesperson for the city on some, but not all, issues.

He said if there were a natural disaster and he were busy dealing with the city’s response to it, getting information to the media would be an ideal assignment for a communications person.

Bridgeo said other issues, such as explaining why the city may have missed a grant or other deadline for something, should probably be handled by the city manager.

 


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