There are a lot of moving parts behind every district attorney’s office across Colorado, with public information officers being some of the most visible.
Law Week Colorado caught up with five PIOs in recent weeks to see what their jobs are like and how they get through the day-to-day including determining what can and cannot be shared with the news media.
Howard Black, the director of communications for the district attorney’s office in the 4th District, was a police officer in Colorado Springs for 36 years before moving into the PIO spot with the DA.
“It’s kind of a privilege to be a spokesperson for an organization,” Black said. He continued, saying sometimes it can be a conundrum when considering what can and cannot be shared with the media as he fields calls from reporters constantly.
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about building a strong rapport with journalists.
“Relationships are so important with media,” Black said. “I try to bring up every new reporter; spend an hour, I like to have some facetime with them. I always understand their jobs, I’m always respectful of the tough questions and I just want them to respect when there’s something I can’t say.”
Over in the 5th District Attorney’s Office, PIO John Bryan has worked part-time in a communications capacity for about seven years. Previously he was a trained public affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force — he served for about 22 years.
“I see my role, my job, as more of someone’s there to help, someone’s there to bridge the gap,” Bryan said. “In the end, let’s face it, it’s the taxpayer that’s paying for this and they have a right to know what’s going on.”
He said the job is always challenging because every case is different. Some are more difficult than others.
“Probably the hardest ones are always if it’s like children or elderly people, those are the harder crimes to kind of absorb because, like it or not, people do crimes against children and elderly people; some of our most vulnerable in our society,” Bryan said. “You have to be professional, but also understand that in the end, it is about communicating what happened.”
And even though he is part-time, he said he’s ready to act any moment.
“Whenever the boss needs something or something happens, I have to be available to jump in and do things or write a press release or something like that,” Bryan said.
The 20th District Attorney’s office has Shannon Carbone leading the way for communications where she’s worked as a PIO since 2018. Like other PIOs Law Week spoke with, she sees her job as unique.
“You have to take it one step at a time,” Carbone wrote to Law Week. “The media can be calling, emailing and texting all at the same time because they all want the information first. It’s important to stay calm when dealing with the media so you do not make mistakes and take each request as it comes in and deal with it.”
There are specialized things these PIOs have to be aware of as well, according to Carbone, including being familiar with statutes, sentencing ranges and the cases the media is following.
“There are always unexpected questions that come up,” Carbone wrote. “I learn something new every day by being a PIO and [some days] when I think that I have it figured out something random comes up. Again, I take each question and deal with it accordingly.”
She added transparency is key as well, as PIOs walk the fine line of what they can and cannot give reporters.
“If we are silent someone or some media outlet will fill the information in which may not be accurate,” Carbone wrote.
Carolyn Tyler, who has been the PIO and communications director for the Denver District Attorney’s Office since 2018 and had previously worked as the PIO for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, wrote being a PIO is a balancing act with pushing out information and responding to media inquiries. She has also received a lot of help along the way.
“When I joined the office in December 2018, the former PIO came out of retirement to spend a few days with me and I am grateful for his support,” Tyler wrote. “Being the PIO for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office was tremendously helpful as was a life-long career in communications and media relations. The best training comes from spending time with the elected DA to ensure that my communications support her vision.”
And as for what can make Tyler’s job easier? “Give real deadlines,” she added.
Eric Ross serves as the media relations director for the 18th Judicial District. Ross is a newbie to the PIO game, serving in that role since May, as he is transitioning from a decade-long career in TV news.
“It was a little bit of a curve at first, going from TV news to the PIO world, but I’ve started learning pretty quickly in this role that a lot of the communication skills and research that I did as a reporter carry over into this role,” Ross said.
The main difference Ross sees between being a reporter and PIO is how intense it gets at times.
“News is always a marathon, every single day a new marathon starts and here it’s more of like a sprint with a project or media inquiries, followed by periods of downtime, and then another sprint,” Ross said.
In the next few months, his district will be pushing out more proactive videos showing the community what the 18th Judicial District does.
“PIO roles are often very reactive, meaning we’re always just answering the media inquiry; we’re covering the story after it happens,” Ross said. “I made a commitment and a push to say, ‘you know what, that is important, but being proactive is just as important as being reactive.’”
Editor’s note: This article’s headline was updated Aug. 4 to reflect Law Week spoke with PIOs from Colorado district attorney offices.