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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    Hebert shines light on court system in judicial public relations role

    Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, center, deputy director of communications, education and outreach for the state Judicial Branch, is presented with the Mitchell W. Pearlman Freedom of Information Award by Izaskun Larrañeta, left, executive editor of The Day and Connecticut Foundation for Open Government treasurer, and CFOG President Kate Farrish, right, at the Mark Twain House in Hartford on Nov. 16, 2023.

    Newsrooms receive endless bland or empty statements from communications officials in response to requests for information, and we’re guessing our savvy readers know them when they see them.

    Sometimes a simple, “No comment” would be better.

    Public relations representatives, cynically referred to by journalists as “flacks,” serve as spokespersons for government and private agencies, often deflecting criticism, or spinning information to put their employer in the best light.

    Some churn out press releases designed to divert attention from more important matters. Others drop a bombshell at the end of the day, or on a Friday night, with hopes it will receive minimum coverage.

    Not Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, deputy director of communications, education and outreach for the Connecticut Judicial Branch. She exemplifies the very best in her field and has devoted more than 20 years to helping the public understand how state courts work.

    That’s why we’re thrilled Hebert was honored earlier this month with the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s annual Mitchell W. Pearlman Freedom of Information Award.

    She’s a reporter’s dream, and perhaps that’s because she was a reporter and editor for more than 21 years at the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, until 2001when she joined the Judicial Branch in 2001.

    “I think Rhonda’s relationship with the media is so amicable because she used to be one of us. She just gets it,” said Izaskun Larrañeta, The Day’s executive editor and CFOG treasurer, in presenting Hebert with the Pearlman award at a Nov. 16 gathering at the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

    Larrañeta worked with Hebert when she covered courts for The Day. I had the pleasure of working closely with Hebert as a courts reporter and a longtime member of the state Judicial-Media Committee, in which journalists and judges worked together to improve access and coverage of court news.

    Journalists often say that members of our ranks who leave to take positions in public relations, where the pay, job security and schedules may be more attractive, are going over to “the dark side.”

    Hebert stays on the sunny side, always. If she doesn’t know the answer to a question from the media, she finds an expert and makes them available for an interview. She coordinates requests for statistics, often providing more than what was requested and steering reporters toward the most crucial information.

    She was invaluable this past year when UConn’s investigative journalism class worked on a series of stories about evictions in state courts for The Day’s Housing Solutions Lab.

    Her knowledge of our profession and commitment to transparency in government has guided her as she championed rules that allowed photographers into Connecticut courtrooms for the first time, organized educational programs such as the Law School for Journalists and Journalism School for Judges and assisted with events such as the “On Circuit” program with the Supreme and Appellate courts.

    Hebert delivered a speech at the CFOG gathering that personified the woman we’ve come to know: genuine, gracious and passionate about open government.

    She credited her supervisor, Melissa Farley, and other branch leadership for doing the right thing, noting that in allowing media cameras into courtrooms, the branch “contributes mightily to open government as people can see up close what is happening in their state courts.”

    “Because the fact is, openness and transparency make government better, with those whom it serves being the ultimate benefactors,” Hebert said. “And therein is the underpinning of the public trust and confidence that sustains a healthy democracy and its institutions.”


    This is the opinion of Karen Florin, managing editor. Reach her at k.florin@theday.com and (860) 701-4217.

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