By Callie Hietala
Kendall Davis is a storyteller at heart, a passion he hopes to bring to his position at Martinsville’s public information officer (PIO). A former Southside Bureau reporter for news station WDBJ7, Davis stepped into his new role with the city on Jan. 14, where he will manage the city’s social media accounts and handle all media and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said the city has been without a PIO for about 10 years. “We wanted to bring that position back for a number of reasons—to provide consistency and uniformity in how information is disseminated; to be much more proactive in our communications with the public” including social media, press releases, and general city information; “and to have a staff person dedicated solely to that purpose. Without the PIO, those responsibilities were being spread among several staff members and from time to time there were gaps in our communications.”
“We’re excited to add Kendall to our staff as the city’s public information officer,” Towarnicki said in a press release. “His familiarity with the area, knowledge of local government, and his technical abilities using various media platforms will greatly improve the city’s ability to efficiently and effectively communicate important and relevant information to our citizens in a timely manner.”
Davis said he applied for the job because he saw an opportunity to continue using his passion for storytelling and sharing information, honed over the course of his career as a camera man and reporter for several television news outlets, to improve the lives of city residents.
“A lot is going on in Martinsville, and even in my capacity as a news reporter, I looked more towards Martinsville stories than other reporters normally would have.” He said people still had “little idea of what was going on in Martinsville, what made Martinsville a good place to be living in, so being able to step into this role, spread accurate information about things that are going on” and being able to improve communication between the city and its residents attracted him to the position.
Davis grew up in Henry County’s Horsepasture District. A graduate of Magna Vista High School, Davis said his eventual career in news began with a dream of sports broadcasting. “I wanted to be on (ESPN’s) SportsCenter,” he said.
Davis studied communications at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, the alma mater of ESPN anchor Jay Harris. During his time there, Davis recalled, “political stuff started happening and things started to be more than sports for me, so I started to want to get into the news field … I found a passion in journalism that grew into storytelling.”
While in Norfolk, Davis said he began working as a cameraman with a local ABC affiliate. There, he said, “we did a story after all the Black Lives Matter stuff was going on,” which won an Emmy.
After working at the station for just more than 3 years, Davis moved on to Richmond where he worked as a reporter and a cameraman, then moved to Roanoke where he became a full-time reporter, “which was always the goal,” he said.
When he took the job, Davis said he hoped to work in Roanoke but ended up being assigned much closer to home in the Danville/Martinsville bureau, “and from there, I just ended up covering my hometown. It’s been fun.”
“I thought I’d never want to come back to Martinsville,” he said, “but being back has been so great, growth-wise and personally.” Davis said he has enjoyed bringing his own family—he and his wife, Ebony, have two children—back to his home and raising his children near his family.
Some of the highlights in his news career have been working as a cameraman on an interview with Hillary Clinton and going to Washington, D.C. as a photojournalist for former president Donald Trump’s inauguration. He was still in the city to cover the protests that followed the next day. “Those were great experiences to be a part of,” he said.
Davis also had a special love for weather-related stories. He said he has covered 5 or 6 hurricanes as well as several fatal tornadoes in the state.
“Those were impactful moments,” he said, “and the stories where you’re dealing with people who lose a loved one, sometimes it feels like you’re a part of the healing process when you’re talking with folks. Even though you’re a stranger, you meet these people on the worst day of their lives, it feels like you’re a part of their process moving forward. That was rewarding.”
Locally, Davis has enjoyed being able to cover issues including reversion.
“I take that dearly, covering that,” he said, “because that’s something that we talked about” even when he was growing up in the area.
When he accepted the job, Davis said he thought the reversion issue was all but settled. “The VSA (Voluntary Settlement Agreement) was already set in place, it was going to be smooth sailing from that point,” and he would just have to work to convey information about the transition from city to town status.
However, Davis is undaunted by the county’s rejection of the VSA and the subsequent legal challenges that have come from both the city and county. In fact, he said, it provided even more incentive for him to want to take on the role. “I’m somebody who loves a challenge,” he said, “someone who loves to be able to think and strategize about things.”
“A lot of misinformation gets spread around, and this is one of the more important things in this area’s history that we’ve had happen in decades, so being able to put that information out from the city’s standpoint, to be able to have a part in guiding residents through that process, makes it worth stepping into whatever P.R. situation we’re stepping into.”
Davis noted that his role is not only dispensing information, but gathering information in as well, and listening to city residents.
“Moving forward, with me being in this role that was not there when this (reversion) process started, I do want to hear from residents, what their concerns are about reversion, what questions they have, and that’s something that we’re working on in the city and in my position to get out to folks,” he said.
Another issue Davis hopes to improve is communication between the city and its residents during events like power outages.
“One thing we’ve seen is that, when (the power goes out) in Martinsville, our Facebook goes crazy” and the city is inundated with calls. “Those type of things are things that I want to improve,” he said.
Though he couldn’t yet share details, Davis said to expect more social media pages in the future and Towarnicki added that Davis brings some technical skills the city hopes to use with MGTV.
Davis emphasized that he also is in his position to listen, and called on the community to help him share information about Martinsville.
“Anything that’s going on in our community, whether it’s a business thing or an organization holding an event, anything that’s going on, let me know because that is one thing that I’m going to get out there and share—Martinsville is a good place for folks to live, there are things to do in Martinsville,” he said. “We’re not the same Martinsville that we were 5 or 6 years ago. If you want to be part of getting that message out, just let me know (your information) and I’ll share it out.”