Janet Clerkin: A lifetime of stories

Janet Clerkin, Oswego County's first lady of tourism, is seen above at her desk on Tuesday. Clerkin was recently honored by the Oswego County Legislature for 35 years of service.  

OSWEGO COUNTY — For the last three and a half decades, Janet Clerkin has been at the helm of county’s most innovative transitions in promotional marketing and public outreach.

For Clerkin, Oswego County’s tourism and public information coordinator, starting her media career in the late 1970s positioned her at the onset of paradigm shifts in publishing — digital media’s replacement of print in the 1990s, the transition to the online sphere in the 2000s and the proliferation of social media as the industry standard for marketing campaigns in the 2010s.

“When I first started we had typewriters,” Clerkin said. “Then we had the evolution of the fax machine, and eventually the county went to personal computers in the late 1980s.”

Last week, the Oswego County Legislature honored Clerkin with a certificate of appreciation for her 35 years in public service, noting the crucial role she played in creating the Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning in the mid-1980s, coinciding with Gov. Mario Cuomo’s investment public funds in upstate tourism initiatives.

“Janet has been an incredible asset to the county in terms of conducting public info in a way that’s credible and establishing good working relationships with the media,” said Oswego County Administrator Phil Church, who said Clerkin “taught [him] a lot” as a public information officer.

Church told the Palladium-Times Clerkin is one of the most “diligent and effective county employees” he’s seen in his 27 years of service, “in terms of work accomplished and her integrity and the professional way in which she’s conducted herself in her career.”

“Almost everything I learned about public information and how to communicate to the public and to reporters came from Janet,” Church added. “That’s why I think public information efforts have been so successful over the years, by the way we disseminated info to news media and the public.” 

A 1977 SUNY Oswego graduate, Clerkin studied English and History and said her initial calling was for the newsroom, eventually landing her first gig as a part-time proofreader at The Palladium-Times, then owned by Thomson Newspapers.

In the summer of 1979, the 11-member editorial staff of The Pall-Times resolved to organize a labor union to collectively bargain for job security, wages and retirement benefits. Corporate executives at Thomson Newspapers allegedly had a history of letting go long-term employees at The Pall-Times before they had a chance to retire, Clerkin said.

As a reporter for the short-lived Oswego County Messenger, formed by disgruntled union members from The Palladium-Times, Clerkin covered county government alongside many of the reporters with whom she would eventually correspond as a public information officer. After only three and a half years, The Messenger dissolved, and Clerkin moved on to the county’s public information desk in the administrator’s office in 1984.

“We never got the big chain stores to support us, only the locally owned businesses,” she reflected.

Although she would not ultimately pursue a path in journalism, Clerkin said her time in the newsroom helped develop her writing style, mechanics and presentation — skills she would marshal in public service posts for the next 35 years.

“When I first started, I didn’t expect I would stay with county government,” she said. “I did know some of the reporters ahead of time, and I just really tried to maintain our credibility. We try to present the most accurate and credible information that we can and try not to allow bias in any way. Having a background as a reporter really helped me to do that, and also for framing the message.”

Clerkin said the first major public outreach campaign she tackled was a recycling promotion. The campaign came with print news releases covering “the most important information people should know about the transfer stations” placed around the county to collect solid waste. By the late 1980s, Clerkin said, personal computers were just entering workplace vogue, aiding her ability to lay out the information newsletter. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Mario Cuomo launched the state’s first coordinated investment in upstate county tourism promotion. The responsibilities of the Oswego County public information desk soon demanded a whole new department to spotlight the county’s angling and outdoor sport activities—and thus, the Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning was launched in 1985.

“What happened was New York state started appropriating money for tourism in the counties,” Clerkin explained. “As that became more structured, Oswego County formed tourism department. I became responsible for news releases and advertising campaigns.”

The 1990s brought the county’s first website, created by then-Public Information Officer Philip Church, who would go on to serve as county administrator and continues in that role to this day.

The 2000s and 2010s brought the proliferation of social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, which became the industry standard for anyone or any organization to gain or retain a public stage. 

For Oswego County’s Economic Development, Tourism and Planning team, Clerkin said this meant pumping the area’s natural resources to anglers and coordinating with the I Love NY marketing campaign.

“As the tourism website evolved, we also became more involved in social media,” she said. “What we’ve tried to do is look at what assets that have been under-promoted that now can be taken to next level. For example, we did more with the Oswego Speedway and race tracks.”

In a rapidly changing media sphere, Clerkin said her best industry advice to aspiring media professionals is to soak in all the wisdom that comes with each job. No matter what the mode of communicating information, she credits her grasp of public communication to the professional editorial standards she learned in The Palladium-Times’ and The Messenger’s newsroom.

“A lot of the skills I learned from working at The Pall-Times and The Messenger helped me immensely,” she said. “I learned so much from some of the other reporters.”

In one sense, everything has changed since Clerkin began in the business of crafting public-facing content about Oswego County — with every new advent of media comes a complete overhaul of industry rules. But in another, media is cycling through the same trends as 35 years ago, complete with the rise of journalist unions and nonprofit news outlets.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take risks,” she said. “If I hadn’t been involved with the union with The Messenger I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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