Over the weekend, I wrote a series of stories about the communications apparatus within the provincial government and other taxpayer-funded entities. In total, you have about 150 taxpayer-funded marketing and communications people being paid to disseminate information about everything from health care to university research.
For the third instalment, I put together an infographic about the anatomy of a news release. The piece was based on the government communications bible, which is a fun read for people who are a little bit obsessed with provincial politics. I figured you proud, political uber-geeks would enjoy reading it, so I’ve posted it on my Google Drive account along with the associated government style guide.
I want to spend just a minute talking about the role of government communications people, and why I think it was important to write about that subject. After the stories went to print, I heard a lot of articulate, well-written criticism from people within the communications field explaining why it’s totally reasonable that the number of communications people in Canada has massively increased in the past couple of decades.
Essentially, I was told, the job has changed. Once upon a time, PR people were told a decision was made, and then they wrote up a news release and crafted a communications strategy. They dealt primarily with journalists. Things moved at a slower pace. These days, communications people have to grapple with social media and Internet platforms. The news cycle is much faster, with breaking news happening at all hours of the day. Moreover, communications people are often the people within an organization best suited to think about how the public will react to things, so they’re more frequently included in policy development discussions. Also, I was told that these days, the job of a communications person involves reaching past journalists to speak directly to the public more often. Instead of dealing with the so-called “filter” of the media, organizations try to deliver their message directly to the people they want to talk to. (In my experience, the much-maligned “filter” of the media usually amounts to fact-checking, speaking to the other side, and using less-flattering adjectives than government news releases do. When I’m writing a story, I usually don’t describe things as “vibrant.”)
In the private sector, this is just a fact of life. Businesses have decided that this is the most effective way for them to do their work, and if it works for them, so it goes. Organizations have decided that this model works best for communicating with customers, and that’s what’s best for shareholders. But government is not the same as business. For one thing, the government doesn’t have customers and shareholders; the government has citizens. And in a democratic society, the line between non-political public service communication and partisan messaging can get blurry.
None of this is to say that government communications people are bad, or that we don’t need them. Personally, I believe that many of the civil servants who are part of the government’s communications apparatus do valuable work. I interact with them every day, and for the most part I find them to be professional, courteous and an important conduit through which citizens can understand what the government is doing and why.
But the fact remains that the size and scope of communications work in the province has increased over the years, and when it’s funded by tax dollars, the citizens of the province are entitled to debate whether that’s a change that should have been made. The very first step in having that debate is simple: count how many communications professionals work for the government. That’s what I did.
I hope this isn’t the end of the conversation. I hope to hear the opposition parties talk about this, and I hope to hear more feedback from citizens of the province. I would like to do stories on this issue, because the stories from this weekend are just the beginning of a conversation.