RIOC Communications Team: High Profile, Low Expectations

RIOC Communications Team: High Profile, Low Expectations

A communications team in any organization is a key element in telling its story. It informs, but it also persuades. The team at RIOC does neither, leaving the state agency with a rudderless public profile.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

What Is The RIOC Communications Team?

In a chilling death-by-Powerpoint presentation, a year ago, communications team leader Erica Spencer-EL told the board that external communications were limited to “marketing” and “branding.” The hapless board nodded sweetly, never asking a question. It had an “It can only happen here” quality.

Since, they’ve been less awful than that suggests, but a lack of direction and competence is still very apparent.

This week, RIOC finally came around to the notion that forcing pedestrians and wheelchairs into the street may not be genius.

A recent example shows how amateurish the communications team often is. For a non-event, they mass emailed an advisory: Blackwell Park Improvement | Pedestrian Egress Notice. “There will be modifications to the current pedestrian foot traffic pattern in and around Blackwell Park, particularly the plaza.”

Disregard, out of kindness, the redundant “pedestrian foot traffic.” It’s a simple sidewalk detour, and if they saw some need for conveying that, no harm, no foul. But “Pedestrian Egress Notice…?

The dictionary definition of egress: “the action of going out of or leaving a place.” While some locals may have anticipated RIOC getting the hell out of Blackwell House by way of the park, those hopes were dashed. The deflating truth was, the RIOC communications team just didn’t know – collectively – what “egress” means.

The Long and the Short

Reflecting a lack of leadership and direction throughout the state agency that never gets it wrong, the communications team’s efforts are scattershot. For example, they repeatedly promoted an out of town business, a Maine Lobster Truck, but say nothing about businesses struggling on Main Street.

Last May, someone died in the Sportspark pool, but the only notice put out was defensive. To date, we don’t even know the victim’s name or the cause. We also don’t know why RIOC denied all access to Southpoint for viewing Fourth of July Fireworks. Or why the FDR Hope Memorial allowed only invited guests, making it a show for politicians, none of whom funded the work.

Surrounded by politicians, RIDA president Wendy Hersh cuts the ribbon for the long delayed FDR Hope Memorial. Although the bulk of the funding was drawn from community resources, Hersh is the single resident in sight.

In the meantime, the communications team uses automated resources for notices about the free food pantry. And they remind us that the farmers market opens up each Saturday as it has for years. Tram shutdowns and updates on park construction – paid for by residents – never appear, even as they stunted summer enjoyments again.

In the end, we’re left wondering, what is the actual goal of the communications team? Marketing what? Branding what?

The RIOC Communications Team as Political Tool

Hints were blatant after an internal coup led to president/CEO Susan Rosenthal’s dismissal. Court documents accuse RIOC, led by Andrew Cuomo, of blatant racism. But behind the scenes, other moves raised eyebrows, although managed in the dark.

The major incident involved elevating community liaison Erica Spencer-EL to communications director within days of Rosenthal’s departure. With little or no experience in the area, she was put in charge of public information. An experienced and respected director, Terrence McCauley, abruptly fell under her supervision. He soon left, leading to the mishmash of storytelling, silence and misinformation we have now.

Note: Although involved in multiple ugly resident confrontations while communications team leader, Spencer-EL does not respond to media inquiries.

Run from Albany by Governor Kathy Hochul’s second floor operations, RIOC’s recent communications turned more political. For example, under fire for a string of motor vehicle accidents, RIOC blasted locals for complaining.

After multiple residents reported the public safety department’s deflecting appeals for aid when a Halloween event brought crowded crosswalks, president/CEO Shelton J. Haynes fired back. “In the most recent incident and to dispel misinformation, Public Safety Department (PSD) officers were in the vicinity of the event when the incident occurred.” But PSD told parents they could not respond because of understaffing, and a child was injured.

Haynes, though, had an answer. “As another point of clarification, the Public Safety Department is not short-staffed as we have only one vacant position at this time.” Perhaps he should notify PSD.

Clinging to Cuomo

Reacting after our report on deficient board membership, one nonresident member, Jeffrey Escobar, stepped down. He did the right thing, but Haynes saw it as an opportunity for firming up his Cuomo creds.

Following a thoughtful note about Escobar, he gratuitously embraced another nonresident member. It was disingenuous excuse-making. Although it was unrelated as well, Haynes wrapped his arms around another nonresident David Kapell.

His handpicked communications team put it this way:

“David Kapell remains a duly appointed member of the Board of Directors of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. Confirmed by the Senate on June 20, 2019, Mr. Kapell holds one of the two public member board seats that do not carry a residency requirement.”

There is no such thing as a board seat without a residency requirement. Enabling legislation carries a single residency requirement: the board must include five. The RIOC communications team never acknowledged the fact that its board has not met that legal standard for over a year. Another missed gem: Cuomo appointed both Escobar and Kapell as resident members, meeting the requirement.

The communications team added that to the list of things the community should not know.

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