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State taxpayers will soon be paying for public relations and marketing teams in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, as part of a restructuring announced in a recent agency memorandum.

Ricky Diaz, a 24-year-old former McCrory campaign whose $85,000 salary as DHHS’ communications director sparked controversy this summer, outlined the changes in an Oct. 24 internal memorandum (see below) obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request.

“Upon arriving at DHHS, I immediately began conducting a review of the Office of Public Affairs and began to examine the overall needs of the Department,” Diaz wrote. “What I have found is that because of the many stakeholder groups and audiences we communicate with on a daily basis, DHHS faces both internal and external communications challenges that are unique to state government.”

The changes will create a one-member press team responsible for responding to media inquiries, as well as a six-person marketing team and a 13-member public relations team. The department headed by Diaz will also be now called the “Office of Communications” instead of the “Office of Public Affairs.”

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Rose Hoban, NC Health News

Rose Hoban, NC Health News

Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News, a non-profit journalism website focused on covering state public health policy, penned this editorial over the weekend about the increasing difficult time reporters are having in getting questions answered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hoban recounted how she and her staff, since reporting what Hoban called unflattering news in May about DHHS, have been stonewalled by the agency’s public affairs staff. The news group has resorted to public records requests in order to get information from the public agency.

From Hoban’s piece, published Sunday in the (Raleigh) News & Observer:

[T]he closing of the lines of communication between DHHS and reporters in the past six months has been troubling. Ricky Diaz, the lead press officer at DHHS, has been quoted in many stories about issues in his department, but many reporters have increasingly voiced concern about the increased time it takes to get responses to requests for information – if they get a response at all. And while Diaz may be quoted, there have been few opportunities for exchanges between Secretary of DHHS Aldona Wos and other leaders in the department.

Recently, the N&O reported that one of its reporters was blocked by “a bodyguard” in an attempt to ask Wos a question. And departmental employees were told to call police if activists who were bringing petitions to the Dix campus – where DHHS offices are located – stopped any employees or entered any of the department’s public buildings.

At NC Health News, we have had most media requests denied or unanswered since we ran a story in May that painted Wos in an unflattering light. We have resorted to making most requests in the form of open records requests with legal language that essentially compels the department to answer or face the prospect of litigation.

You can read Hoban’s editorial in its entirety here, where she talks about the risk to public health that broken communication lines can cause.

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