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New Tigard spokesman aims to tell city's story

Communications strategist Rudy Owens' job focuses on public engagement

OwensRudy Owens is a storyteller.

A writer and photographer, Owens this week stepped into a whole new world, as the city of Tigard’s new communications specialist.

Owens settled into his new job on Monday, becoming the city’s first dedicated public spokesman, taking over the city’s messaging — from its monthly Cityscape newsletter, which went digital-only earlier this year, to handling requests from the media and telling untold stories about the city’s successes.

Owens is doing much more than taking calls from journalists, he said.

His primary job is to create a more engaging way to communicate with the community about what’s going on in and around the city, he said.

“The city sees it more as all-encompassing — all the ways you can communicate with people,” Owens said. “That can involve engagement. That can involve social media. That can involve communicating internally in the city and thinking about research about the best way to talk to people.”

An avid blogger, Owens has worked as a reporter in Cottage Grove and Sitka, Alaska, before leaving journalism for a career in communications.

He worked for the Canadian Consulate in Anchorage and Seattle, and for the past four years, he worked in public health, educating people about emergency preparedness, mental health and substance abuse.

“This is a chance to do something a little different, and I’ve been wanting to get down to Portland for a long time,” Owens said.

More engagement

In 2012, the mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force told city officials to up its game.

“Tigard is not very good at telling its story,” said City Manager Marty Wine. “As a city, there is a whole lot going on at any one time and we need to engage the public both on what projects we were working on and getting them information that they needed. It just needed to get better.”

Most large agencies have a public spokesman of one kind or another. The Tigard Public Library and Tigard Police Department both have dedicated employees handling phone calls from journalists, informing the public about programs and events, and interacting with the public, but that’s not the case at City Hall, where the city manager’s office has functioned as a de facto spokesman for city business.

Since then, Tigard Mayor John L. Cook instituted regular fireside chats and informal town hall meetings to hear from residents. The city has set up focus groups and launched an extensive social media campaign to keep people informed. It is currently collecting public input about how medical marijuana dispensaries should be treated within the city.

All those are steps in the right direction, said Owens.

“About 19 percent of Tigard residents speak a language other than English at home. How do we as a city communicate with them?” Owens said. “Those are things any city deals with. How do you engage with the older population living in retirement communities? What’s the best way to engage with them?”

When a city is working correctly, people often don’t notice it. It’s important to highlight all the ways the city is working in the community, Wine said.

“Our departments are very good at doing the work they do every day, but communicating with the community is not the first thing they think to do,” Wine said.

Owens’ job, Wine said, is to change that.

“He’ll give some internal resources to the departments to help us tell our story, and help us get a pulse of the sentiments of the 50,000 people that live here,” Wine said.

Owens said that the city has a responsibility to engage with the public about what it’s doing.

“People in the engineering department want to communicate, but what is their message? When do we need to go out and talk to people about what we’re doing? How do we talk to people? How do we share info so that people know what is going on? We need to ensure that when someone at the city is doing one thing, that the person impacted by it is aware of it. We need to be totally aware of what we’re doing.”

That’s nowhere more evident than downtown Tigard, where construction on a large road project is expected to wrap up this fall. Business owners complained for months that the city did not do enough to inform them about impacts to their sales or let customers know that downtown would remain open for business.

Owens said knowing how to keep people engaged with its city is a tough job, with no easy answer.

“For people that don’t read a newspaper or Cityscape, what’s the best way to talk to people?” Owen said. “We can always do a better job.”

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