A little over a year ago, the Madison County board of supervisors voted to hire Heath Hall, president of Strategic Marketing Group (SMG) and public relations consultant, to handle media relations for the county.
Hall has an extensive background in public relations. In fact, he has been hired by Madison County for a similar role twice in the past. He has also worked on political campaigns for both Sheriff Randy Tucker and District Three Supervisor Gerald Steen.
Maybe it is his experience that the supervisors believe warrants paying a hefty price for his services. When the county approved his contract, they agreed to pay him approximately $30,000 annually.
For $2,500 each month, Hall is expected to post information to social media, write and distribute press releases and respond to information and interview requests from the media on behalf of the county.
Try calling various county offices with questions for an article, and you will likely be directed to Hall.
Well, good luck.
After requesting information or help setting up an interview through Hall, it is unclear where things fall apart from there.
For example, recently I began working on an article about the ban on the use of golf carts in county neighborhoods. I initially reached out to Hall on August 28 with a request to coordinate an interview with Sheriff Tucker.
Days later I received an email from Hall saying he was working on it. After several emails back and forth, and a bit of waiting, I was informed that the sheriff had “no further comment.”
Since this was the first time, I had requested information on this issue, I was confused. “No further comment” implies that he had responded to me previously.
Well, “no comment” is at least a response and is better than other attempts to reach county employees in the past through Hall. Attempts were made last August to set up an interview with Steen. In January, attempts were made to coordinate an interview with the then newly appointed county engineer Tim Bryan.
Instead of a response with “no comment,” I got a few “I’m working on this” or “let me check on this” emails from Hall. Eventually, I simply stopped receiving responses at all.
It should be noted that I did, however, have success many times receiving needed information for articles over the past several months by reaching out to Bryan directly.
Since the providing information for articles and coordinating interviews portion of Hall’s job isn’t happening, I wondered what does he do for the county exactly?
Since his contract was approved, I have not received a single press release. Maybe the Northside Sun is just not on his distribution list, which would be strange considering how many emails I’ve sent to him over the past year.
I do see regular activity on the county’s Facebook page, but are “quick notes” worth $30,000 each year?
It is interesting to me how many concerned citizens approach the board every week with real issues like crumbling roads or unaddressed drainage problems, both of which are expensive to fix. Many times it has been said that there simply isn’t funding for most of these projects.
However, it seems the county doesn’t have a problem with wasting money - which could be allocated for important projects - on other things, such as paying for a media relations professional that does not actually work with the media on the county’s behalf much, if at all.
In the case of the sheriff, it is unclear where the breakdown of communication occurred and if the lack of cooperation was on Hall’s part or Tucker’s. But it is quite strange, in my opinion, that so much back and forth was required through a third party just to be unable to acquire information from a public official. For an article about golf carts of all things.
Ironic since the board specifically cited transparency as a major reason for hiring Hall. Which begs the question, why is the county throwing money away each year for the opposite?
Perhaps that is exactly the point.
Nikki Rowell is a staff writer for the Northside Sun.