Keeping Counties in the Know

Communications Evolved, Expanded to Best Serve Members

By Liz Carmack

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Editor’s Note: As County magazine celebrates TAC’s 50th anniversary, it is featuring a series of articles that will look at the history of TAC through the lens of the services it provides to counties. This installment covers the history of TAC’s technology and communications. Responding to the needs of counties is foundational to TAC’s existence. It’s in the organization’s DNA, and it has been the animating force behind its five decades of service to the institution of county government and the county officials who serve their communities in all 254 Texas counties.

Future issues of County magazine will cover a deep dive into the TAC pools (May/June), the evolution of TAC’s education offerings (Sept./Oct.) and a look at TAC leadership throughout the years (Nov./Dec.). In January 2020 County magazine will release a commemorative 50th anniversary issue with all the 50th anniversary articles, timelines and photos.

For more than 50 years, the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) has worked hard to communicate to its members the information they need to best perform their duties and serve their constituents. 

TAC’s communications push started with a one-page newsletter banged out on a manual typewriter shortly after its founding in 1969. Fifty years later, TAC’s communications efforts include a 400-plus-page website, video podcasts, timely Tweets and Facebook posts, and much more. 

Keeping members informed is one of TAC’s many important services to members. It’s included as a key duty in its Constitution, as follows: “… the Association shall (a) establish and maintain an information service, designed for the benefit of all county officials and maintained through the cooperative exchange of information and experience by county officials and the collection and dissemination of this information to county officials. … ” 

Over the years, TAC’s communication efforts have expanded to ensure members get the information they want and need, no matter how they want to receive it — whether that’s print, email, online, videos or social media posts. 

Good Old-Fashioned Print

In the Association’s early days, printed newsletters helped TAC’s leaders explain its mission of supporting counties and county officials by providing useful, timely and reliable information, including updates on legislation that might affect counties.

The first TAC newsletter apparently went out shortly soon after county leaders sat down on June 19, 1969, to establish the foundations of the new organization. A newsletter that focused solely on legislative issues came out shortly thereafter, according to Kenneth A. “Buck” Douglas, the Association’s first full-time paid executive director.

Recalling his tenure from 1973-77, Douglas wrote in 1994, “The first thing I did was to get organized to get out a weekly newsletter about the Legislature.” 

As the Association’s services and programs grew in response to members’ needs, TAC marked another major communications milestone in 1989 with the launch of the quarterly County magazine. 

The publication focused on county and Association news as well as features covering current hot topics to county government — from how counties should deal with solid waste to the state’s criminal justice crisis. 

A trusted source for news, County added two more issues a year in 1992 when it became a bi-monthly publication. Read more about the evolution of County in the accompanying article, “County Magazine Turns the Big 3-0.”

During the early 1990s, TAC published its first newsletters that focused on helping counties better manage risk and promote wellness. “Personnel Pointers,” “Flashpoint” and “Health Works” arrived inserted in County and included such information as how to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act, tips for safe lifting and working outdoors in hot weather, and advice about taking up walking to improve health.

Going Online 

TAC leveraged the speed and immediacy of digital communications to expand its communication channels to reach members more quickly and efficiently. Around 1990, it launched TAC News, an electronic legislative news service available via a Western Union network. A description at that time noted that the service “reports daily on county-related legislation, lists legislative hearing notices, reports on legislative strategy and general news on the state government scene during the legislative session. The rest of the year, TAC News is published weekly – every Friday.” 

Today TAC continues to provide detailed legislative updates via County Issues, which is emailed weekly to members during the legislative session and monthly during the interim. 

County officials also receive urgent notifications from TAC about legislative issues via emails called Legislative Alerts.

With the advent of the internet, TAC secured the website address and launched its first website in 1996. The new site provided counties with instant information about the Association’s services and more. Links on that initial site included: Legislative Information (including TAC News), Legal Information, Education, TAC Publications, Safety & Loss Control, Personnel Issues, Self-Insurance Coverages, About TAC and Related Sites.

A County magazine article introducing the “World Wide Web homepage” instructed internet novices how to use the new website: “By clicking on one of the options, the user is then transported to one of these pages.” 

That same year, TAC employees gained email addresses and the Association urged counties to jump on the internet and email bandwagon, while also providing technological training and other assistance. Read the accompanying story, “Keeping Counties Connected,” to learn more. 

As more counties got email access, TAC began to reach out via that channel. Today email is a large part of its daily communication to members. News and information alert members to educational opportunities, provide helpful links to interactive features on our website, share tools and videos available through the Texas County Delivers public education campaign, and present details on upcoming risk management webinars, wellness program opportunities and other news. 

TAC knows county officials and their staffs are busy and need to receive useful information quickly and efficiently. Throughout the 2000s, TAC continued to expand its communications efforts to reach members where they are consuming information. That meant moving into social media and video.

TAC launched a YouTube Channel in 2009, a Healthy County Facebook account in 2009, a TAC account a year later and a Twitter account in 2012.  Through these social media channels, the Association interacts with members and reaches out with information about upcoming TAC events, county-related news, legislative and wellness news and more. 

The Association added an Instagram account in 2016 as part of the Texas Counties Deliver public education campaign. Read the accompanying article, “Explaining County Government,” for information about TAC’s public outreach efforts over the years.

In 2017, TAC kicked off a new video podcast, “TAC on the Lege,” as part of the weekly County Issues legislative newsletter. In it, TAC Legislative staff briefly discuss the top issues at the Capitol.

Whether it’s a 4-minute video podcast on a desktop computer, a hard-copy issue of County magazine or a Twitter post on a Smartphone, TAC delivers essential information where our members want and need it. The Association will continue to do so as communications media and technology evolve along with our members’ needs. 

County Magazine Turns the Big 3-0

by Anna McGarity

As TAC turns 50, its cornerstone publication, County magazine, also marks a significant milestone — turning 30. The premiere issue launched in the summer of 1989 under the leadership of Executive Director Sam Seale and Managing Editor Jim Lewis. 

The new publication was published quarterly with “the aim to give Texas county officials a timely, reliable information source on county affairs and the activities of TAC and the county officials organizations,” according to Seale in the magazine’s first-ever Staff Report column.

During its first few years, County provided relatively brief issues at just 22 pages and with only two-color production. The first feature article in the inaugural issue was “Economic Development Options for Counties” by then-Morris County Judge Ron Cowan, detailing the effects of the oil crunch on counties that did not have a single gas or oil well. 

The first issue also provided a review of the 71st Legislative Session, including a declaration by the House making April 25th County Official Day, as well as a summary on bills affecting counties that either passed, died or were left in limbo. The issue also informed members of educational opportunities and upcoming events.

It soon became apparent that County was needed more than four times a year, and in March/April 1992 the magazine went bi-monthly. 

County has always been a staple in county offices, providing a valuable connection between the different offices inside the courthouse. TAC Executive Director Susan Redford said, “During my time as Ector County Judge, I found County magazine an invaluable source of information. I looked forward to each issue and would often save articles that I thought would be useful to reference in the future.” 

In 2005, the magazine went from one- and two-color processing to limited four-color layouts. Manuel Ruiz with Capital Printing, which has printed the magazine from the start, remembers, “Jim Lewis and I would meet after the page count was determined each issue, and I would come up with the various pagination options for him to review. He would then select which forms would be black only, black on one side and four-color on the other side, or all four-color.” 

At the time, printing in full-color was expensive and time-consuming. Limiting the number of pages printed in full-color helped save costs while also allowing the best photos/graphics to really pop. 

Also by this time the magazine had quadrupled in size from its premiere issue to 64 pages. It showcased courthouse photos, in-depth features on counties and their innovative programs, professional development articles to improve efficiencies in county offices, and the County Information Project column written by then-Operations Manager Tim Brown. This column continues to this day, still written by Brown, now Senior Analyst for the County Information Program. 

In 2007, Maria Sprow took over as Managing Editor when Lewis took the role of Communication Director under the leadership of Executive Director Karen Norris. Not long after, the technology of digital printing caught up with the desire to print the magazine full-color throughout. This gave the designers and editors the ability to use stunning photography and color graphics to illustrate the stories they told.

The magazine began its online presence in 2013.

In 2014, Anna McGarity took over as Managing Editor. The magazine staff includes graphic designer Ben Chomiak and TAC Communication Specialists, who also act as lead writers. The team strives to uphold the quality and integrity of County, with the sole purpose to provide essential information to county officials and their staffs while also telling the stories of the people and places that make up the uniqueness of Texas counties.

“As we venture into the next 50 years at TAC, County magazine remains a crucial medium for us to push information out to our members and to help ensure we are fulfilling our mission as an organization,” said Redford.