Few metro cities had communications teams when Helen LaFave started her job in Plymouth 30 years ago. Now almost every suburb has staff members running social media, boosting marketing and taking media requests.
In an era of 24/7 news and information, counties and city governments across the Twin Cities have beefed up their communication teams. And while those spokespeople may not be well-known to citizens, they're often the ones behind updated websites, text alerts and Facebook or Twitter posts.
"The expectations over the years [have] changed," said LaFave, who now works with two other communications staffers in Plymouth.
This year, Minnetonka added a third staffer to deal with increased demands, and Ramsey County added a graphic designer. As officials overhaul Hennepin County's child protection system, a new communications specialist will help respond to public inquiries.
"There's never been more demand for information and in real time," said Carolyn Marinan, public relations officer for Hennepin County and president of the Minnesota Association of Government Communicators, which has 270 members statewide. "We want more engaged residents, and with that comes a demand for increased communication."
During the Great Recession, some government agencies didn't have the resources to hire a communications or public affairs staff. The state auditor and some legislators pointed in 2011 to the Metropolitan Council's public affairs spending as a way for government agencies to cut costs. And in 2014, Prior Lake considered cutting communications jobs as one way to save money.
But as government finances have stabilized, cities and counties have added jobs and changed the way they communicate with residents, from instant text alerts to social media updates.
The roles of communications officials also have evolved — becoming part administrative, part clerical and part promotional.
"The profession of communications has grown in a generation," said John Siqveland, Ramsey County's public communications director. "As organizations have changed it's become increasingly important to have people who understand what you do and communicate what you do."
The public sector, he added, is following the private sector, where public affairs jobs have become more in demand in recent years. As services in the public sector have grown, he said, more communications staffers are needed to convey that to residents.
Years ago, people in Siqveland's job would work the phones to alert reporters or answer their questions. Now Ramsey County has 12 communications staffers — including those working for the parks department and library system — who are charged with updating websites, e-mailing news releases, taking media calls, communicating with employees and running social media.
"Everyone wants to communicate more and more," said Marinan, who left TV news in 1998 to work for the county. "I think it's so critical. Without it, people make their own truth."
The rise of public relations jobs in the public sector coincides with a drop in journalism jobs as news organizations cut back. According to the latest federal labor statistics, there were 54,400 journalists in 2014 vs. 240,700 public relations specialists — and the median pay was nearly $20,000 more than what journalists made.
Some communications professionals say the downsizing trend of media outlets, which often results in fewer meetings being covered and less general coverage of public bodies, is exactly why local governments need to feed more information to residents.
Hennepin County spends about $2 million a year on communications, a relatively small slice of its $1.9 billion budget. The county, the state's most populous with 1.2 million residents, has 17 communications staffers along with 20 communications specialists embedded in departments such as the Sheriff's Office and child protection.
According to state data, there are nearly 300 public relations specialists and managers, marketing specialists and media and communications workers in local government. Most of them work in the metro area, but even some outstate counties and cities have added communications officials. State agencies from the Department of Natural Resources to the Transportation Department have their own communications staffs.
"The expectations to receive timely information just grows and grows," said Kari Spreeman, Minnetonka's communications and marketing manager. "As it's evolved, government tried to evolve with it."
Not everyone is convinced a communications team is needed; some think that city managers and administrators should field media requests and relay information to residents.
In Maple Grove, for instance, Mayor Mark Steffenson said city leaders thought it made financial sense to keep communications assignments with current staffers.
And journalists have spoken out locally and nationally when public information officers restrict information, monitor interviews or block reporters' requests to speak to staff.
Don Gemberling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information hears from residents when they're frustrated in trying to get access to information and have to go through communications staffers or lawyers.
The increase in communications staff "says something about priorities," he said. "I don't think people realize how many people are employed in that capacity."