Fall break

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This blog is on fall break. Thanks for reading, and see you in November.

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Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).

Remembering Elizabeth “Bricks” House

I am saddened to hear of the death of Elizabeth House, a former colleague at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Elizabeth and I worked together in Greensboro from 1989-1991. My job on the copy desk there was my first full-time gig in newspapers. Elizabeth was always kind and helpful to newcomers like me, eager to show us the ropes.

Bricks, as she was known, did everything in Greensboro: reporter, sportswriter and columnist, copy editor and page designer. She was similarly versatile after moving to Hawaii, where she worked from 1993 to 2010.

In 2013, Elizabeth organized a reunion of News & Record journalists. I was able to attend and catch up with friends and colleagues from more than 20 years ago. The gathering took place on a perfect September afternoon in downtown Greensboro, and it wouldn’t have happened without Elizabeth.

Farewell, Bricks. You will be missed.

A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:

handsup

I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.