Bedden wants to extend PR deal

The public relations company hired last year to improve Richmond County school communications is hoping for a new $120,000 annual contract from the economically challenged school system.

In May, the system agreed to pay Florida-based Voss & Associates $10,000 a month during a one-year contract in

which Voss would provide a public relations director and implement recommendations it made in a communications audit.

The company updated school board members on its efforts during a presentation earlier this month. David Voss, the company's president, touted its success in shaping the image of Richmond County schools, citing exclusive arrangements with Augusta TV stations and a local parenting magazine .

Superintendent Dana Bedden says the contract is a good investment.

Outside consultants had recommended hiring a public information officer and put the cost at $120,000 for a salary and benefits. The Voss agreement provided that position and the company's expertise for the same price, he said.

"We are getting the resources that come with Mr. Voss' extensive experience and a staff person working directly in the office to be both proactive and responsive to the public and media," Dr. Bedden said in an e-mail. "We have gotten training for our administrators, proactive public engagement, etc."

Richmond County is the eighth-largest school system in Georgia. It has 10,000 more students than the next largest system in the area, Dr. Bedden said, and all others in the area

appear to have a public information office.

"To not have a (public information) office puts us back in the dark ages and relegates us to the system of old times, waiting for wrong and misinformation and/or inaccurate information to be shared, removes needed resources and training for our staff and moves us towards failure in getting the good news out about all the positive things our schools, staff, students, etc., are doing in Richmond County," Dr. Bedden said.

Two local TV stations have partnered with Richmond County schools. Last fall, WRDW-TV became involved in a partnership with the school system when it contracted with Connect with Kids, a national program providing positive news stories and tips for Richmond County parents. Connect with Kids in turn signed a deal with WRDW to exclusively air its programming, including a feature on the school system.

Earlier this month, the school system announced an arrangement with WAGT-TV for the station to exclusively broadcast a series of features called Be There, a program created by Voss & Associates that advocates parental involvement .

According to Voss employee Louis Svehla, who handles public relations for the school system, he will find stories from Richmond County parents and submit them only to WAGT for consideration. Only that station will have rights to use the Be There tag line. The deal extends to Metro Augusta Parent magazine, a partner with WAGT .

The school board signed off on the Be There campaign in May when approving the contract with Voss. The contract refers twice to the campaign, but it doesn't say how the campaign will be implemented.

During the Voss presentation, Alex Howard, the board 's vice president, asked whether all media outlets were given an equal shot at partnering with the school system. He also questioned how wise it is to form exclusive relationships.

Mr. Howard said such arrangements might damage the school system's image with the public and create friction between news outlets.

"My main concern is that we don't receive any backlash from any outside media," he said.

Mr. Voss defended the practice, saying everyone was given an opportunity and that these arrangements assure better exposure for Richmond County.

"Normally, as a media guy, you don't play favorites, especially when it comes to news," Mr. Voss said at the meeting. "If you partner with the media, you get guaranteed prime time slots."

The Augusta Chronicle was not approached about a partnership. Mr. Voss said the campaign was geared toward TV media. He contacted the newspaper about becoming involved last week.

Bob Steele, a nationally recognized expert on journalism ethics as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values and a senior ethics faculty member of the Poynter Institute, said exclusive arrangements damage public trust in news organizations and government agencies.

"These agreements - they are really back room deals - raise ethical questions and erode the journalistic integrity of the news organization," Dr. Steele said.

The deals give residents every right to question the integrity and independence of journalists as watchdogs, he said.

In October, the month WRDW entered the Connect with Kids agreement, the TV station broke a news story about a sex scandal at Spirit Creek Middle School - a situation that continues to be under investigation, though several employees have quit or been dismissed.

After the station's newscast, more than one news outlet requested public records of the alleged incident. The WRDW reporter, who was the first to question school officials about inappropriate relationships among employees of Spirit Creek, was assured she would receive the records before they were made public to anyone else.

Mr. Svehla later admitted the arrangement, calling it bad judgment on his part.

WRDW President and General Manager John Ray said there has been no deal-making with the school system but acknowledged an arrangement through a third party to carry the Connect with Kids programming.

Board President Marion Barnes supports the work of Voss.

"I think we really got our money's worth out of the company," he said. "If we are able (to continue the contract), I think it's a necessary expense, but not to the detriment of instruction or personnel."

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.