The First Rule of Public Information Officers: Never Lie - TribPapers

The First Rule of Public Information Officers: Never Lie

Photo by Taras Chernus.

Asheville – Along with being a reporter, editor, and publisher for the newspaper, I also volunteered for years as a public affairs/public information officer with the Civil Air Patrol.

For those who know nothing about the Civil Air Patrol, or CAP for short, it is the official auxiliary of the US Air Force. They have a rank system that coincides with the Air Force aerospace education and youth program, as well as conducting search and rescue missions. In North Carolina, CAP falls under the Public Safety Department.

I was explicitly selected for the public affairs/public information officer track by the local squadron commander because of my newspaper background in 2008 when I joined CAP. There are three levels in the track: a technical level, a senior level, and a master level, of which I achieved the latter. Not sure, but it used to take a year, along with classes and book work, to achieve the technical level.

Needless to say, achieving the master level took years. I have been named state public information officer of the year several times, as well as regional public information officer of the year. I taught a public affairs class at a CAP national conference and took the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s advanced public affairs course at the National Fire Academy in Emittsburg, Maryland.

I said all that not to toot my own horn, but to let you know what I am about to say is the first thing I learned as a public affairs/public information officer: never lie!
I’m afraid Aaron Sarver did not learn that lesson in his training as a public information officer for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. As on  January 3rd of this year, that appears to be precisely what Sarver did to the Tribune – lied – when we inquired about a New Year’s Eve protest reported by Skyline News which blocked entrances to the Buncombe County Detention Center (see article page 1).

There was some controversy about whether the event even happened. When asked about the incident on the 31st, Sarver told the Tribune, “Jail operations were normal on 12/31/2022 with the exception of a higher number of bookings than normal [sic] that day, due to it being a Saturday and New Year’s Eve.” The claim that the entrance to the jail was blocked by protestors is misinformation. In reality, Sarver was giving the Tribune misinformation. The question is: was it intentional or a mistake?

If it was a mistake, Sarver ought to do two things: one, let us know he was mistaken and apologize, and second, give us the correct information. However, I don’t think that’s the case—why?

Sarver doubled down on his statement in the email reply, adding, “Additional comments on the Facebook post from multiple stakeholders, including bail bondsmen and others who were working on New Year’s Eve, attest to the normal operation of the jail with people being arrested and processed without incident.”

To add insult to injury, he covered up his falsehood when he claimed that the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) report was not a public record, which appears to be another lie as the Tribune was able to obtain the record Sarver denied us from the Asheville City Police.

Sarver needs to understand that news outlets need to be able to depend on his statements and those responses to our questions being correct and truthful as we are publishing that information to our readers. Once that trust is broken, it’s hard to get back the trust of the reporters, just as when a reporter says to a source that something is off the record, it better be off the record; otherwise, you’re going to lose your source and maybe your job.

If Sarver intentionally lied to the Tribune, he should lose his job as the people of the county depend on his truthfulness, and how do you get that trust back once it’s been lost? Remember, the first rule of a public information officer is never to lie!