The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has declined to release emails and other communications it has had with media consultants who advertise themselves as “transparency engagement advisors.”
In late July, the Bohemian filed a request with the Sheriff’s Office under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for a year’s worth of emails and other documents involving Cole Pro Media and Critical Incident Videos, two Vacaville-based companies founded by a former television journalist.
On Sept. 1, the Sheriff’s Office released some records but, citing a broad range of reasons including protections for communications with attorneys and communications related to ongoing investigations, withheld an unknown number of additional records, including social media training materials developed by Cole Pro Media.
Glen Smith, an attorney with the San Rafael–based First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit focused on government transparency and free speech, says the exemptions cited by the Sheriff’s Office’s seem overly broad, especially given that no one at either of Cole’s companies are attorneys.
“It appears from [the documents] they released that this is purely a PR firm and their work product, whatever it might be, is not privileged,” Smith told the Bohemian.
The Sheriff’s Office’s latest contract with Cole Pro Media, a three-year agreement signed this July, requires the company to provide a wide range of services, with tasks ranging from daily social-media advice to “1-on-1 tactical and strategic consultation” for Sheriff Mark Essick. Under a separate contract signed last year, Critical Incident Videos performs “redaction and editing of video” and provides “non-legal advice regarding production” for the Sheriff’s Office on an as-needed basis.
In a statement, Misti Wood, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said that the agency takes “transparency very seriously.”
“Cole Pro Media provides transparency and engagement advice from an outside perspective,” Wood wrote. “This advice helps the Sheriff’s Office continue to be as transparent as possible.”
Laura Cole, the founder of both media consulting companies, did not respond to a request for comment.
Cole, a former television journalist, founded Cole Pro Media in early 2014, a year after the Black Lives Matter movement first sprang up nationwide. In February 2019, Cole founded Critical Incident Videos, a company which edits together 911 call recordings, body-camera footage and other materials following a “critical incident” involving law enforcement officers in order to comply with Assembly Bill 748, a recent state law which requires agencies to release body-camera footage when a law enforcement officer’s actions result in “death or great bodily injury.”
Although her companies are still relatively young, they have attracted a long list of California law enforcement agencies as clients. According to its website, Cole Pro Media represents numerous law enforcement agencies across the state. It also serves as a media consulting firm for the California State Sheriff’s Association, an advocacy group which opposed AB 748 when it was under consideration in Sacramento. Just a year and a half old, Critical Incident Videos now represents about 100 agencies throughout the state, Cole told KPBS, a San Diego public radio station, earlier this month.
The manner in which Cole presents her company’s work has shifted over the past three years.
In May 2017, the Modesto Bee reported that Cole Pro Media’s own Facebook page described the company’s work in these words: “Here at Cole Pro Media, we believe journalism is changing. Thanks to social media, any person, agency, or leader can report the TRUTH. It is all about building your OWN media. We will report the story for you and teach you how to do it on a daily basis. It is time to take back the control from the Mainstream Media and get the real stories out there using social media. We also offer a ‘street smart’ class to outsmart reporters.”
Although Cole reportedly stood by the description of her company’s work at the time, Cole Pro Media’s public presentation has changed considerably since then. On its website, the company now calls its employees “transparency engagement advisors” and claims to have a “no spin” policy.
In her recent KPBS interview, Cole said that Critical Incident Videos will not edit videos for an agency which wants the company to make the agency “look good.” That said, Cole acknowledged it is ultimately the client agency’s decision as to what final video is published.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office first hired Cole Pro Media in November 2016 for $2,500 per month. The company’s first contract includes a short, general, three-point scope of work, including offering the agency “guidance on media communications,” “social media support,” and six two-hour social-media training sessions for Sheriff’s Office personnel each year.
This July, the Sheriff’s Office signed a new, three-year contract with Cole Pro Media with a more specific scope of work for $3,000 per month, plus $350 per hour for any on-site work outside of Cole Pro Media’s social-media training courses.
All told, the Sheriff’s Office paid Cole Pro Media $126,500 between October 2016 and August 2020, according to financial records obtained through a public-records request. Critical Incident Videos, which bills the Sheriff’s Office $350 per hour, has edited four videos for the Sheriff’s Office at a total cost of $18,200 over the past year.
The scope of work included in Cole Pro Media’s July 2020 contract includes numerous specific tasks, including reviewing “high profile and sensitive documents prior to release to the media” and completing a “daily review of all Sheriff’s Office posts on all media and social media platforms.”
The contract further requires Cole Pro Media to be available for “multiple conversations a day for the duration of the [critical] incidents” and “3 conversations each day” for the duration of a natural disaster, such as a wildfire or flood, for up to three weeks.
One line is repeated in both the November 2016 and July 2020 contracts: “Anticipate questions and tactics from mainstream media.”
Lastly, in addition to shaping public perceptions of the agency as a whole, the July 2020 contract tasks Cole Pro Media with providing “1-on-1 tactical and strategic consultation to the Sheriff to assist with media approach, both on an incident specific and broad strategic development scale.”
While Cole Pro Media’s contract suggests close contact with the Sheriff’s Office it is not clear where the consultant’s scope of work stops and starts.
Since late May, when he briefly announced that his agency would not enforce the county’s Covid-19 Health Order, Sheriff Mark Essick has been perceived on several occasions to be at odds with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and other local officials. During those public disagreements, Essick sometimes spread his opinions via Facebook.
But, since the Sheriff’s Office will not publicly release its communications with its media consultants, it remains unclear what advice they are giving Essick—and whether he is following it.
In her response to questions about Cole Pro Media, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Misti Wood stated that Cole Pro Media “may provide advice on any number of subjects, from daily activities to disasters,” but did not respond to specific questions about whether Cole Pro Media offered advice on any of the recent public disagreements between the Sheriff and other county officials.
A recent public scuffle over the Sheriff’s budget offers a good example of Essick’s use of the agency’s Facebook page. In an Aug. 13 Facebook video published on the agency's Facebook page, Essick outlined the “proposed service cuts” the Sheriff’s Office was facing, including the elimination of the agency’s beloved helicopter, Henry-1.
“Please know that I have no choice but to recommend these cuts based on the Board’s direction to cut $14.2 million from our proposed budget,” Essick says in the video. “If you want to get involved, you may get in touch with the Board of Supervisors directly to share your thoughts.”
In an interview with the Press Democrat, Essick argued that the video was “about public transparency and the budget process.” Multiple county supervisors disagreed with that assessment, pointing out that they had required all county agencies to find programs to cut.
“He is bullying the Board of Supervisors through social media,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane told the Press Democrat. “He’s also using social media to scare the public at a time when we need the public’s trust more than ever. Shame on him.”
The scope of work from Cole Pro Media's July 2020 contract is available below. The scope of work from Cole Pro Media's November 2016 and Critical Incident Videos' July 2019 contract are linked here and here.