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Janssen hires ex-broadcaster as Pinellas school district's top communications officer

Charged with strengthening public and media communication, superintendent Julie Janssen has named a former broadcast journalist to lead the way.

David Cook, a former sports producer for WFLA-Ch. 8, will take over as chief communications officer, Janssen told School Board members Thursday.

The decision signals an internal shake up that caught some board members off guard, since neither Cook's position nor any others in the reorganized office were advertised.

Cook has worked for six years as operations manager at WPDS-TV, the school district's television station. Before that, he worked in radio and television broadcast news.

Janssen told board members she didn't feel she needed to look outside the current communications staff — let alone the district — for help to improve the school district's reputation in the community.

"We felt that we had the talent present in our organization," she said.

The restructuring comes in response to a $23,624 audit performed by communications consultants Hill & Knowlton. The study found that school district leaders need to take a more intentional and strategic approach to telling their story to staffers and the public.

Among the audit's recommendations:

• The district needs one chief communications officer, a key senior adviser to the superintendent who "is constantly monitoring and evaluating new issues and initiatives to identify where there are communications needs or implications."

Before the new restructuring, district communication was overseen by two offices: the Office of Strategic Communications staffed by former St. Petersburg Times reporter Donna Winchester, and the seven-person Communications Office headed by Andrea Zahn.

Under the new plan, Janssen and Cook said, Winchester and Zahn will report to Cook.

• The superintendent should convey to everyone in the district that communications is a priority.

• The district should stop relying heavily on principals to get the word out to teachers and the public about issues as they arise, since it sometimes results in miscommunication or no communication at all. Instead, the superintendent and deputy superintendent should be more visible when it comes to communicating important issues.

• The communications staff should spend less time on generating lots of news releases about "good news" in the district and instead cultivate stories "that have all the elements a journalist looks for: compelling human interest, hard data (and) … experts who can talk about how district initiatives fit into state or national trends."

Board member Robin Wikle said Janssen's process was "flip-flopped" as she selected Cook before job descriptions or even salaries were finalized.

She also voiced concern about the superintendent's communication, saying that the open position should have been posted publicly. She questioned what message a new position — and pay increase of about $7,000, according to Cook — sends to an instructional staff whose salaries have been frozen.

"It would have been more palatable if salaries stayed on the same level since they were all internal," Wikle said of the chief communications officer position and others below it on the revised organizational chart.

Janssen defended the raise, arguing that it was accompanied by a promotion and represented the salary that would have been paid to an external candidate.

"I would have done it differently," said member Lew Williams, adding that the move would not have a significant effect on his review of Janssen next month. "I would have interviewed. I would have posted it."

C. Ryan Barber can be reached at (727) 893-8505 or rbarber@sptimes.com.

Janssen hires ex-broadcaster as Pinellas school district's top communications officer 07/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 7:05pm]
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