Communications Department working to keep residents informed

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Susan Howington, coordinator of the University of Georgia Extension Office in McDonough, never expected to get an award for her work on a television show. She is the driving force behind “Garden Delights,” a cooking show overseen by the Henry County Communications Department for HenryTV, the local government-access channel.

L. to r.: Ed Gore, Samantha Watson, Communications Director Melissa Robinson, Kevin Williams and Meredith Butler are the Henry County Communications Department. Special photo

“Garden Delights,” in 2014, shined a spotlight on a dish known as “sweet potato bake.” The show garnered accolades for the program at the state and regional level, and from the National Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Howington, who also serves as the Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, says she is grateful for the Communications Department’s support and expertise in putting “Garden Delights” together.

“They’re awesome to work with,” she says. “They’ve got great ideas, and they’re so knowledgeable about how to do things. They make us look really good. Their work is so good that they can put together a TV show that can help you win an award.”

Frank Hancock, the Extension’s agriculture and natural resource agent, looks back fondly on the recent recognition he and Howington received for their involvement with the show. Hancock touts the Henry County Communications Department, which produced the show, for making it a success.

“They did a good job with the program,” he says succinctly. “Nobody had a program that was put together any better than that.”

“Garden Delights,” which first aired in February of 2013, is one of several programs produced by the Communications Department. The show’s fall gardening episode is set to air in September.

The Communications Department also acts as a liaison between the public, the media and local government officials.

Communications Director Melissa Robinson says the goal of the department, which launched in 2000, is to keep residents informed about local issues that affect them. HenryTV, she says, has been an integral tool in achieving that goal since its first airing in 2007.

“We want to be transparent with the citizens and show the best side of this government,” says Robinson.

Programming on HenryTV features Commission meetings, Zoning Advisory Board meetings, news about the county’s four cities, the Board of Education and the Henry County Water Authority. Meetings are available for viewing on demand through the county website, says Robinson, to accommodate residents’ busy schedules.

“We strive to help people become informed about what is going on in the community,” says Robinson. “But we understand that it can be difficult to take the time to attend meetings, so the next best thing is to be able to watch it at their convenience.”

Robinson began working in the Communications Department six years ago, and took over as its director in November of 2013. She credits former Commission Chairman, and current State Court Judge, Jason Harper, for helping the department keep pace with the county’s explosive growth with the creation of the local TV station.

“Jason Harper had a vision and was willing to make an investment in Henry County and HenryTV,” says Robinson. “And we have strong support from our entire Board of Commissioners. They seem to understand and really appreciate what the Communications Department does in terms of disseminating information to the public.”

HenryTV also produces original programs including “Silver Tones” – which Robinson calls a “hugely popular” exercise program for seniors – and “Henry Insider,” which features a different commissioner each month. The latter program, Robinson says, gives residents a chance to see more personality from those commissioners as well as a more in-depth look at county government.

In addition to covering county events and meetings for television, the Communications Department disseminates news items and photos related to county government, monitors news media coverage, and represents county departments in addressing questions from the media. Robinson and her staff also create brochures, flyers, posters, videos and public-service announcements for county departments, as well as proclamations, certificates and other items on behalf of the Board of Commissioners. The department also works with state and local governments to get information out to the public, and maintains the county’s website daily.

Robinson says her favorite aspect of her job, however, is the opportunity it gives her to interact with local residents.

“I like talking with the public,” she says. “I meet so many interesting people from all sectors. I enjoy helping them understand what’s going on with their local government, and I love getting the good news of county government out to the people.”

Robinson acknowledges that keeping residents informed sometimes means dealing with controversial topics that are generating a buzz in the county. The key in doing so, she says, is to maintain a focus on truth and honesty toward the public.

She adds that the duties of her department are more far-reaching than people may realize and she and the entire staff take the responsibility of communicating for county government very seriously.

“Nothing goes out of this office that hasn’t been looked at, looked at again, talked about and discussed from every angle,” says Robinson. “There’s a lot that goes on. I have a great team of smart, creative professionals who really make this department work well.”

She also credits the Communications Department’s production team, Kevin Williams and Edward Gore for their efforts in creating quality programming for HenryTV.

Williams has worked as a broadcast producer for the county since November of 2005, and was there when HenryTV first aired on April 2, 2007. He says the station is a crucial element in informing residents about what’s happening in the area.

“There’s always been an effort to provide an element of transparency with county government,” says Williams. “I think the TV station really pushes that forward. I’ve really come to appreciate the diversity of the projects that we work on.”

Williams says the TV station helps to educate the public on issues they may not know much about. As an example, he notes a project he worked on a few years ago for the county’s Stormwater Management Department.

“The project was on explaining to citizens about pollutants in the water,” he explains. “It was well received and won a couple awards. We were able to take something people may not think about and convey it simply.”

Gore, a broadcast specialist, has worked in TV for the last 25 years. He is responsible for videos put together by the Communications Department, as well as manning the audio board for meetings and other programming on HenryTV.

Gore says he relishes the opportunity to learn something new on a regular basis through his job.

“There’s not a day that I don’t enjoy coming to work,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. The technology of what we’re doing has changed so much. I’ve had to learn five editing programs over the last 10 years. I’m not an expert at any one of them, but I’ve gotten really good at all of them.”

Meredith Butler has served as the department’s webmaster and communications designer for nearly two years, maintaining the county’s website on a daily basis. She says the “direct purpose” of the site is to get the most information to the public as possible regarding county services and events.

“There isn’t a question you could ask that, most likely, can’t be answered,” says Butler. “I think our county does a great job of getting information out to the citizens. Anytime there’s anything that goes on, we put everything out there. It’s nice to be part of that process.”

She adds that Henry’s website is different from the more “generic” sites used in some other areas, in that the Communications Department updates it regularly instead of using “canned” information. The result, she says, is a site that can be used as a tool to encourage more involvement from the community.

“Citizens that are interested in being more involved can get a wealth of information from the county website,” says Butler. “Ours is updated every single day.”

Samantha Watson started three months ago as a part-time communications specialist, writing press releases and articles for the Communications Department. She assists in the production of the county’s subscriber-based news-letter, Update, and is overseeing an internal employee newsletter that is set to launch at the end of the month, as a way to promote comradery and inclusiveness among county workers.

Watson says she appreciates the chance to make a positive contribution to the community.

“I’m a public servant at heart so the reward of working for the Henry County Board of Commissioners is the knowledge that I’m helping citizens and my community by way of information,” she says. “My effort in writing and designing for County publications helps the County “speak” and communicate to those that it is accountable to. The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that I help give Henry County a voice.”

Watson says she is grateful to be working with such a professional team of people with everyone working together to bring out the best in the group as a whole.

“Melissa is a great guiding force for the team, and everyone in the department is a wealth of knowledge. I’m grateful to be working with such an established team.”