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CAPIO: The Nurturing Network for Public Information Officers Turns 35

Brad Rovanpera is public information officer for the City of Walnut Creek and can be reached at rovanpera@walnut-creek.org.


It seems like a logical assumption: A government of the people, by the people and for the people should inform the people. But four decades ago, only a smattering of cities in California actually employed full-time public information officers (PIOs) to do just that. Mayors and city managers were largely responsible for disseminating public information, if it was done at all. For most cities, the concept of actually budgeting funds to hire a full-time staff PIO was an unfamiliar one.
 
PIOs not only prepare press releases and community newsletters, they also perform highly specialized duties that require multiple skill sets: managing a website, handling protocol, producing television programs, preparing audiovisual presentations and more. In essence, PIOs provide a vital communication link between city hall and residents that can enhance community involvement and civic engagement.
The Genesis of CAPIO
In 1971, a small group of PIOs from cities in Southern California formed an organization dedicated to the notion that public information was an important — even vital — service that cities perform for their citizens. They also wanted to share their ideas about how to be even more effective communicators, and thus, the California Association of Public Information Officers (CAPIO) was born.
Dick Taylor, Inglewood’s PIO, hosted the first gathering of what was originally called the Southern California Association of Public Information Officers, or SCAPIO. Among those attending were Murray Brown, Tom Bandy (Rancho Palos Verdes), Frank Blaszcak (Cerritos), Carol Brown Spencer (Pasadena), Paul B. Clark (Carson), Tom Foreman (Montebello), Clair Harmony (Commerce) and Bill Reed (Huntington Beach). SCAPIO soon opened its first office at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and within six years the organization had adopted its first set of bylaws. To further establish its credibility, in 1977 the group hosted an information table at the League’s City Managers Spring Meeting in Pasadena.
Brown, a former editor of Western City and formerly head of public affairs for Cal State University at Los Angeles, was CAPIO’s first executive director. He was among a handful of founding members who were honored at CAPIO’s 2006 annual conference in Cathedral City.
“There would be no CAPIO without Murray Brown,” said Blaszcak. “His vision, encouragement, nurturing and professionalism made it possible for those of us who are called founders to lay the groundwork for what CAPIO is today.”
SCAPIO’s growth in those early years prompted the organization to drop “Southern” from its name in 1978 to reflect its statewide membership. However, the devastating effects of Proposition 13 on local government budgets hit the organization hard, and by 1980 membership had dwindled to 12. The remaining members regrouped, and in 1982 CAPIO held its first-ever annual conference in the City of Commerce. A year later, the organization changed the last word in its name from “Officers” to “Officials” to reflect the broad spectrum of organizations involved in CAPIO.
A Formal Relationship With The League
In 1984, CAPIO established its first partnership with the League, scheduling its members to speak on League panels and assist with media operations at the League’s annual conference in Anaheim. Four years later, the League created its director of communications position, which was filled by a city PIO and CAPIO member. By 1991, CAPIO was contracting with the League for staff support. The organization then moved its office to the League headquarters in Sacramento.
Over the past 35 years, the status of PIOs has ebbed and flowed with the times. When times are good and budgets are healthy, city councils have tended to create or sustain those positions. But during severe state budget downturns, such as those in 1992 and 2002, some cities resorted to completely eliminating their PIO programs to save money. Through it all, CAPIO has maintained its dedication to providing a nurturing network for public affairs staffers from throughout the state and a venue for promoting best practices in the profession.
Getting the Word Out
“CAPIO’s goal is to create public awareness and understanding,” said CAPIO President Bill Polick. “The role of PIOs has evolved significantly in the last few years. We are not ‘spin doctors’ or publicity agents anymore, but men and women who face the often challenging task of telling our agency’s side of a story, whether it’s good or bad news.
“Our organization provides training, networking and mutual support to PIOs throughout California,” added Polick, noting that CAPIO offers a series of workshops throughout the year in many locations around the state. These cover communication basics, such as public speaking, news release writing and media relations, as well as current subjects, such as customer request management, the Internet and blogging. The workshops are also open to non-CAPIO members.
Looking back at the organization’s earliest days, its founders still express pride in what they helped to establish.
“By creating CAPIO, we knew we were promoting the public’s right to know at the local level,” said Clair Harmony. “Ben Franklin was the first to promote a public relations approach to the right to know in the federal government, [but] … modern government is far more complex than it was in Franklin’s day. We have more services and citizens to reach, and therefore, more demand for fair and honest dissemination of information. CAPIO helped set the standards.”
Tom Robinson, a founding member and the 2006 recipient of CAPIO’s top honor, the Paul B. Clark Award for Distinguished Individual Achievement, believes as strongly as ever that public information programs really do matter.
“When properly planned and executed, a comprehensive public information program can help develop a climate of citizen support and confidence that enables government to succeed in its efforts to meet the needs of the community,” said Robinson.
The Value of Networking
Which brings us back to an epochal moment when the organization’s founding members first realized the importance of CAPIO. As Blaszcak recalls, “Paul Clark showed up a little late to a meeting. Prior to his arrival, the PIOs were engaged in lighthearted conversations about their respective work with newsletters and other communication activities. Paul arrived without his usual smile and seemed as if he was in another world — in fact, he was. He looked up at us and said words to the effect of, ‘My city has just been declared a cancer cluster area. How do I deal with this?’
“It was then that we all realized how important CAPIO was as we engaged in a discussion of what resources we might bring to the table to help him,” Blaszcak continues. “Ironically and sadly, Paul succumbed to cancer a short time later. But the experience of that meeting has never been forgotten by those of us who were there, and it’s the cornerstone of why
we network.”