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Friday, February 24, 2012

City Politics - Communications

I've given some thought to the latest City Hall kerfluffle - hiring a communications officer at a cost of $140,000.

In fact, I've given it quite a bit of thought ever since I debated it with Jim Routledge yesterday and then read some reactions in the Nanaimo Daily News letters to the editor.

My initial reactions were two in number and pretty much diametrically opposed: "Great idea!" and "Huh?"

Let's start with "Great idea." It is if this person can act independently. I wouldn't even put him or her on staff. I'd simply hire a freelancer - contract him or her and make sure this is not a PR person. A retired reporter would be ideal. I could see someone like columnist Ron Bolin doing a great job. The position would work well if the person was organized - a file on everything the public needs to know about - and that starts with every single place their money is being spent. So - the public needs to know what's happening in every area of City Hall. This person could question. mayor, council and staff just like a reporter would and then write up the results (unbiased) and get this stuff out to the public. There should be a City Hall blog - press releases - Facebook page - all that good stuff. If the communications person can communicate honestly and openly without restrictions, great!

What a boon that would be!

But is that what will happen?

In my experience as a sometime reporter, dealing with communications people at VIHA, VIU etc., I find their main job is to stop communications - as well as to spin facts to put their organization in a good light. Instead of talking to the person I want to talk to I have to go through convoluted hoops to finally get to the person I want to talk to - this does not facilitate transparency and timely communication.

It's completely understandable that the public eyes communications officers with a good deal of suspicion. I know that when I want to talk to John Ruttan, which I do off and on when I am writing stories, I want to call him and talk to him - not go through some minion.

Yes to a communications person if that means simplified, clearer communication, timely communication, answers to questions and increased transparency. No if it's the same old, same old.

Another thought - we have some very high priced people working at City Hall. I would assume they know how to communicate. Why on earth can't they do that as part of their job?

And finally - $140,000????!!!! Really? Hell, I could do that at half the cost - so could anyone worth their salt. And really, don't put a person like that on staff. Someone on the outside with no fear of being fired, would do a far more honest job. I still think Ron Bolin would be perfect - or someone like him. Someone versed in politics, someone passionate about politics and someone dedicated to honesty.

But (I told you I was of two minds) in economic times like this, spending $140,000 on yet another staff position at City Hall is downright irresponsible. Scrap it folks. Draw on your illustrious educations and skills and learn how to communicate.

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