Wherefore all the spin doctors and spokespeople?
There are certain Aspenites whose names appear in the paper literally every week, sometimes multiple times. Of course, you’d expect someone like Mayor Helen Klanderud to fall into this category, but there are others who don’t occupy elective or executive posts.Consider Bill Tomcich of Stay Aspen Snowmass, who has become the “go-to guy” whenever the local or national media need to know about airline service or hotel occupancy rates in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Or Jeff Hanle, the voice of the Aspen Skiing Co.Here in the Times newsroom, we got talking about spokespeople and public relations professionals and realized that, for a small town, Aspen has quite a few. We wondered why a town of some 6,000 people needs a half-dozen PR firms and more than a handful of spokespeople, public information officers and “community relations specialists.”Perhaps it’s because this small town has two local newspapers and regularly attracts attention from the likes of USA Today, The New York Times and various news and travel magazines. Perhaps, at least in the case of our local governments, Aspen’s overeducated and information-hungry citizenry demands prompt information about the potholes in the road or the latest land-use debate.Or perhaps it’s because Aspen’s tourism-based economy depends on marketing, image-building and, well, spin.We decided to talk to a few of them – not about the issues, but about themselves and their jobs.To be fair, not all of these public relations pros are “spin doctors,” a term that typically applies to silver-tongued talkers who bend facts to promote a political or corporate agenda. One describes herself as a “conduit” for information exchange between the public and the government. Another, because of her position at the local hospital, probably spends more time protecting patients’ privacy than she does dispensing public information.Whatever the case, these individuals have a great deal of power to shape public perceptions and community dialogue. We talked to them about why and how they do what they do.
By Joel StoningtonGinny Dyche may have told more reporters she doesn’t have any information to share than any other person in the valley. As the Aspen Valley Hospital spokesperson, she is the gatekeeper standing between the media and a hospital population where privacy is crucial. “It all boils down to our first priority, which is our patients,” Dyche said. “We are totally committed to patient care, to a quality experience.”Does that mean sometimes she has to ignore certain things, to essentially spin a message? “I wouldn’t be honest if I told you differently,” she said. “I am always going to try to put a positive message out about this hospital.”But it’s just part of the job. She also says that when difficulties do arise, if there is a time when they can do a better job, the hospital will be honest about it. During the recent billing controversy, for example, she said the hospital admitted a problem and worked with patients and insurers to resolve it.”I love the variety of my job,” Dyche said. “I have so many interactions with so many people and I like that. I’m really proud of the work we do here.”Dyche gets most vibrant when talking about the patient-care-based mission of the hospital. As the spokeswoman, she has to believe in the hospital’s values, but her best days are when she can provide a service directly to a patient – by helping connect them to someone else, or helping to ensure their privacy.Dyche had a bachelor’s degree in nursing when she started 22 years ago as AVH’s education coordinator. Four years into that job, the hospital’s previous spokesperson left, and the administration asked Dyche if she would consider the job.”I said, yeah, I’ll give it a shot,” Dyche said. “That was all those years ago, and I’m still giving it a shot.”Dyche’s most difficult time as a hospital spokeswoman was during the 2003-04 financial crisis that led to the ouster of the CEO and CFO, and the layoff of 34 employees. She never questioned the hospital’s basic mission, but said it was a painful experience for all concerned, and she felt it acutely as the hospital spokesperson.During times of crisis or controversy, she said, hospital administrators try to come up with a unified message. “You want to write a story that’s accurate and thorough,” she said. “We want to provide you with the information we think is important to share.”It’s a tightrope act at times, especially when it comes to patient privacy. Dyche’s hands have always been tied by federal privacy regulations, but the 1996 passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) strengthened the restrictions. She said the decision about whether to share information with the media and the general public is often more black and white than it would seem.Dyche’s job is obviously bigger just because it’s Aspen. Sometimes a celebrity will be injured at the hospital and insist on complete privacy. On other occasions, Dyche has organized press conferences in the AVH lobby.Why does Aspen have so many public relations people? “Aspen is a unique town with unique needs,” Dyche responded. “It has to do with a community that’s very engaged. There is a desire for knowledge. You could also ask why does a tiny town like Aspen have two daily newspapers?”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
By Scott CondonIf anyone can relate to the Skico’s Jeff Hanle, it’s Jeanette Darnauer. If he’s king of the spin doctors, she’s got to be the queen – and a long-reigning queen at that.Darnauer started her public relations firm long before there was an explosion of companies seeking such services. For years, she was one of the few local options for companies needing someone to help get their message out.Darnauer was a longtime journalist before entering PR. She came to town in 1976 to be an assistant editor at the Aspen Journal, a weekly publication that competed against The Aspen Times. Dave Danforth was among her charges before he went on to start the Aspen Daily News.After a short stint at the weekly paper, Darnauer headed the news department at radio station KSNO for six-plus years then jumped to KSPN before freelancing for a year. She was recruited by the Aspen Skiing Co. to head public relations, among other things, when the firm’s relationship with the community was frayed.As director of public relations for the Skico from 1985 to 1988, Darnauer believed she was making progress with initiatives such as the popular two-day-per-week pass. But in 1987, company executives put her in a tough spot by doing the unthinkable – raising the single-day lift ticket price by $6, to $35.She was one of two members of the senior staff who warned the decision would outrage the community. They were overruled, but were proved correct. The uproar eventually forced Skico President Jerry Blann to step down.”That was a very challenging time for me and everybody in the company,” Darnauer said.Darnauer decided to stick with the company and try to bring about changes from within by pointing out the community’s reasoning and opinions on Skico-related issues. It did little to endear herself to colleagues. “I was considered one of the bad guys,” she said.Darnauer left the Skico in 1988 and became general manager and news director at KSNO until late 1990. The following year, she founded the Darnauer Group. She hired her first employee in 1994 and now employs a staff of between four and 10, depending on her projects.The Darnauer Group provides a variety of services centered around “branding” a product or company and helping them get their message out.”There’s always been a demand for the service, but it’s definitely increased,” she said.What’s really changed during her 17 years in the business is the number of PR firms. Competition has skyrocketed. “You always have to hustle for business,” she said.She helped Gerald Hines’ development firm earn approval for Highlands Village, then helped merchants at the village in their quest to improve business. They enjoyed their most successful summer in 2006, she said. She helped the Limelite owners get their message out when they wanted to redevelop the property. Now she is helping Tim Semrau with his mayoral campaign in Aspen.Darnauer noted she is no stranger to politics. She helped Wayne Ethridge in one of his successful campaigns for Pitkin County commissioner. She believes her firm has been successful coming up with cutting-edge ideas and implementation strategies. Darnauer doesn’t see herself as a mouthpiece or spin doctor for her clients. Instead, she said she plays a valuable, broad-ranging role in helping clients get their message out.Darnauer said she leads the brainstorming process for “brand identity” campaigns and solving problems in creative ways. She enjoys working on communication relations campaigns (her Skico experience notwithstanding) and getting the satisfaction achieved when a special event is successful. The ultimate reward, she said, is working with clients who “get it” or truly understand the relationship between her firm’s services and their firm’s bottom line.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
By Scott CondonCall him the king of the spin doctors.Jeff Hanle has been dubbed as such by local newspaper reporters not so much for manipulating information as just simply ending up in the paper so damn often. As the spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co., it’s rare that a week goes by without Hanle getting quoted. And when there’s a hot topic, he can be in the paper for days on end.No other public relations person in Aspen comes close to getting quoted as often as Hanle. And as the voice of the Skico, that can be a good or bad thing.”I’m the guy who puts his foot in his mouth so others don’t have to,” said Hanle.When there is a death on the mountain, Hanle has the unenviable task of fielding reporters’ calls to explain what happened. On the other hand, he gets to spread “good” news like the expansion of Highland Bowl.His public reception can be as varied as his tasks. Hanle is an outgoing guy, so stopping at a local watering hole after work is always an adventure. Some days when the news has been good, he said, people buy him drinks before he is seated.”Some days it’s bad and I don’t want to know what they do to my drinks,” he said with a laugh.He said he is always willing to engage in a good friendly debate with his buddies at the bar. Often, he is able to provide some insights to a new Skico policy or offer a perspective that brings people around to his point of view. And sometimes not.”I’m always up for the challenge,” he said.Rarely does he meet a local who is unfamiliar with his name. When he is introduced to someone new, the response is often, “Oh, you’re Jeff Hanle,” he said. His standard response is, “Is that good or bad?”Hanle came to Aspen in 1988 as a ski bum. He got into local radio and eventually started his own freelance marketing business. A lifestyle change (PR talk for a divorce) forced him to get a better-paying job. He saw a Skico advertisement for an opening in their public relations department and was hired by Rose Abello.His official title is senior communications manager. Practically speaking, he is responsible for fielding local media calls, doing some of the work with regional media, writing press releases, doing some of the wining and dining of reporters that public relations people are famous for, and arranging film or photography shoots.”When you have a tragedy on the mountain, there’s nothing tougher than that,” Hanle said. In one of his first seasons on the job, there were five fatalities from various types of accidents.This season, the Skico has been in the headlines in ways it would like to avoid. A visiting doctor somehow passed the boundary rope at Walsh’s and ended up injuring himself in a multihour hike down to Highway 82. There was an unfortunate avalanche at Snowmass that killed a young man and a tragic accident that took the life of a popular ski instructor after he took a spill and hit a tree. The Skico’s lift-loading policies at Aspen Highlands were also scrutinized after a 10-year-old girl from Germany fell 50 feet off the Cloud 9 chairlift.The Skico has also dealt with the usual complaints about lost luggage on airline flights and a greater number of canceled flights than usual – issues that are out of its control but still raised by its customers.”It’s certainly been bizarre,” Hanle said of the season. “There’s been a lot of strange things going on.”While he ‘fessed up to occasionally providing information that is “certainly filtered when it has to be,” he insisted that putting a spin on information is as far as he will go.”I’m always shielded by the truth,” Hanle said. “I’m not going to lie. It will come back and get you and get the company.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
By Charles AgarMitzi Rapkin, community relations director for the City of Aspen, said “I see my job as getting information out to citizens and taking feedback.”Rapkin, originally from Rochester, N.Y., has a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She worked in radio, newspapers, TV, documentary film and at media outlets in Crested Butte before coming to Aspen.”I wanted to be in the mountains instead of looking at pictures of them,” Rapkin said. “I thought it would be really interesting to work with citizens. As a journalist you’re sort of on the outskirts. I wanted to get involved with things.”A world traveler, Rapkin was surprised when she applied and got the job with the city in 2005.”Most cities and counties have someone like me,” Rapkin said. Writing newspaper ads, press releases and an online newsletter is not a unique job, she said, “but what I’m trying to do is different. I want to have honest dialogue with people.”For example, Rapkin plays a role in the “Voices on the Entrance” program, which the city is using to solicit feedback on the town’s ongoing traffic problem. She also provides a “meeting in a box” – photos, maps, historical information and study materials – to area groups that wish to discuss the Entrance issue among themselves.Rapkin hosts a regular show on CGTV, “City Matters,” which informs viewers on issues ranging from the city budget to use of area Nordic trails.”Everyone has something to say about Aspen,” Rapkin said, and she wants to find ways to hear from different demographics and “energize the community in public dialogue.”Reaching people is difficult in Aspen, she said, because of the town’s transient population of seasonal workers and second-home owners. But her biggest challenge is communicating with people who aren’t civically engaged, she said. When water lines break, it is easy to reach the affected citizens. But engaging those who don’t read the paper on citywide issues is another matter.Rapkin said there’s no room for spin in her job, because the federal Freedom of Information Act mandates transparency in government, and because “it’s just my nature to be a very sincere person.”Rapkin often stands on the firing line of public criticism, and she said it can be frustrating when people confuse her with politicians and policymakers.”I can pass [comments] on, but I can’t change things,” she said.But she is proud of what the city does.”Aspen’s at the top of their game,” Rapkin said. With everything from land use to environmentalism to affordable housing, “Aspen is a leader.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com
By Abigail EagyeBill Tomcich is one of the most oft-quoted people in the valley – a fact he finds ironic, since he’s technically not in public relations.But as the president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, Tomcich is well-connected with a broad range of businesses, from hotels to airlines to the Aspen Skiing Co.As such, Tomcich is a virtual clearinghouse of information on factors that affect Aspen’s economy. When a Christmas blizzard put the freeze on Denver International Airport, for example, Tomcich was the man to talk to about flights coming into Aspen (none) and the ripple effects in the community – even though he doesn’t work for the airport itself or the lodges, restaurants and shops.”I wear so many hats,” he said. “By default, I am probably more knowledgeable about some of the hot topics in town.”Tomcich calls it his dream job. As a kid, he loved airplanes, and he knew he wanted to work in the ski industry.He grew up in Virginia and helped found the ski team at James Madison University. Upon graduating, he and a handful of other young men from the team decided to go West.Vail was the first stop, and Tomcich landed a job in central reservations. From there, he eventually worked his way up to a position as an analyst for all direct flights into the Eagle Airport. In 1995, the Skico hired him to do the same thing for its resorts in Aspen, and he later assumed his role with Stay Aspen Snowmass, the central reservations agency for the upper Roaring Fork Valley.Because of his extensive knowledge, Tomcich is in constant contact with local and national media. He candidly acknowledges that when wearing his PR hat, his first responsibility is “protecting the image of Aspen,” including the airport.Hands down, he said, his hardest day in Aspen was March 29, 2001. The date is etched in his memory. A plane crashed at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, and all 18 people on board died.Tomcich stepped up to do damage control, because “no one was willing to take responsibility for it, and the airport was getting totally beat up,” he said. “The reality is it’s incredibly safe.”But despite his obligation to protect Aspen’s reputation, Tomcich says if he ever felt there were some sort of coverup that would compromise public safety, he would feel compelled to expose it.”Fortunately, I’ve never been put in that position,” he said.In the case of the plane crash, he said, the details of what he called a “preventable” accident eventually came out, and although the events that led to the accident happened in the plane and not on the ground, the airport was able to use what it learned to become even more safe.Tomcich is aware of the dark side of PR – sometimes the public is suspicious of information coming through a PR agent, because so many spokespeople try to put a positive spin on everything – but he finds the job rewarding nonetheless.”It’s fun to be in the know,” he said. “I like to know what’s going on. [And] to be effective at what you do, you’ve got to love what you do.”Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
By Charles AgarBorn in Honolulu, Pat Bingham, the county’s community relations coordinator, was raised on military bases around the globe – including a three-year stint in Saigon, Vietnam.But when the family crossed Independence Pass and landed in Aspen, Bingham found her spot, and she knew she’d be a journalist from the moment she started making announcements over the Aspen High School PA system.Bingham studied journalism at Colorado State University, and started on radio in Aspen in 1978, which she called an “exciting time to be in journalism” as local politicians introduced growth management to the booming town.”Writing is what I do best,” Bingham said. And when she’s at her keyboard or running a radio show, Bingham said, “I feel like I’m driving a BMW.”In a media career spanning sales, marketing, reporting and on-air work, for everyone from local radio – KSPN and KSNO – to the Aspen Skiing Co., the chamber of commerce, Aspen Magazine and Climbing magazine (which started in Aspen), Bingham has “seen it from every angle,” she said.After dropping her news career to be a stay-at-home mom in Carbondale – 5:30 a.m. newscasts and motherhood don’t mix, she said – Bingham jumped at the chance to get back into the community when the job opened up at the county.”It’s the perfect job for me,” she said, because she can use her communication skills without chasing ambulances and working wacky hours.She stresses that she’s not a county spokesperson or media handler, but merely directs inquiries to experts in county departments. “The only reason you will get a quote from me is because no one else is around.”Nonetheless, Bingham’s media experience comes in handy. “Government people are not used to being proactive about getting the word out,” she said. “You don’t sit on information … and you don’t act like nothing is happening.”She dispenses information and has a knack for boiling down complex government issues. She also stands ready to get the word out in the event of disaster, and Bingham is part of the “incident command” structure that plans for everything from flood to pandemic.When wildfires forced her to evacuate an area using a “reverse 911” call, Bingham said, “We weren’t spinning that.” And when the airport was closed on Sept. 11, 2001, Bingham was “on” almost around the clock, she said, issuing advisories and helping to secure the airport.And she’s never been asked to keep quiet on an issue, she said.”We don’t spend time talking and spinning,” Bingham said. Her approach is to notify the community about everything from road maintenance to an airport closure.Bingham is a member of a nationwide organization of county information officers, and claims her job is not unusual. “It’s not that different from a PR agency,” she said – except for the pay.And Bingham is clear that she is not involved in county politics. “I let them make those decisions,” she said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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