MUN stands alone

University’s communications staff exceeds that of entire civil service

James McLeod
Published on May 3, 2014
Memorial University employs 70 communications people, with combined salaries of $4.5 million — more than are in the civil service. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Part two of a three-part series

There are 50 communications people working in the civil service at a combined salary of $3.7 million, but that’s only a fraction of the bigger picture.

The Telegram conducted an analysis by studying budget documents and contacting various agencies for information.

However, it’s tough to get a firm picture because there isn’t a clear-cut line between pure public relations and communications work, and the broader marketing and public engagement staff employed by government agencies.

Moreover, budget documents don’t always tell the full story; the government salary details list four positions in the premier’s office, but two of those jobs aren’t staffed right now.

Similarly, the Liberals currently employ three communications people, but two are on contracts that expire at the end of the legislative session.

To get a rough picture of how many communications people are employed by the taxpayers, start with the 50 communications people in the core civil service, then add on five people doing communications at Eastern Health, nine at the College of the North Atlantic, eight more at Nalcor, and two at the English School Board.

And then there’s the department of marketing and communications at Memorial University, which employs 70 people at a combined salary of $4.5 million, although that encompasses a much broader scope of work than what the core civil service does.

Altogether, an analysis done by The Telegram was able to identify more than 150 taxpayer-funded people working in communications for the provincial government in its departments and agencies.

They make a combined salary of roughly $10.8 million annually.

The Telegram was not able to get a response from every provincial government department and agency, so the total figure is likely higher.

Even this doesn’t tell the full story, because it doesn’t include things like the government’s “Innovation Lives Here” campaign where the government is advertising to people in the province about business success stories within the province.

The ads play on TV and in movie theatres throughout the province.

For that campaign, the government spent $463,611.65 to advertise exclusively to citizens of the province about the successes of government-supported businesses.

“We’ve seen in governments across Canada that the governments have increasingly spent money to tell taxpayers how good a job they’re doing, and this is a trend we’ve been seeing for a number of years,” said Kevin Lacey, with the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

Lynn Hammond, a former director of communications in the civil service, and formerly then-premier Kathy Dunderdale’s director of communications, said that communications people do a lot more than just write news releases.

“Regularly, my experience is that the senior communications person in the department sits in all the senior executive meetings — for example with the minister, deputy minister, assistant deputy minister — and is able to provide communications advice right through the process,” she said.

Hammond said communications people are an easy target for government critics because they’re not in a position to defend themselves.

Ultimately, she said, they give advice and work for the politicians, but they’re just civil servants.

She said she believes they do provide a valuable service.

“When you look at the size of government departments, you know, the department of Health, for example, can you imagine how much work and how much briefing a minister needs to be able to stay on top of all those issues?” Hammond said. “Without that communications staff, I can’t imagine how they would be able to wade through all that work.”

Liberal MHA Christopher Mitchelmore had a different perspective, though. He said that all people want from government is basic information and straight answers, and despite the number of communications workers, the government can’t seem to provide that.

“Simple requests are being delayed. The information is not being put forward. You have to file for access to information, and then it takes longer,” he said. “Communication in government really only works if people are listening. It’s clear that the government is not listening to the public.”

In sheer numbers, the Memorial University Marketing and Communications division stands apart.

There are more people on staff at MUN communications than in the entire provincial government, although Victoria Collins, executive director for the division, pointed out that the comparison isn’t really fair, because the university does a lot of work in-house that the provincial government contracts out.

Moreover, she explained that with an organization like MUN, their whole business is knowledge and communicating it to the public.

“Those are publicly funded research projects; part of our obligation is to put that out there for people so that they understand the research impact on them,” she said.

Part of Memorial’s marketing efforts are focused on attracting students — with a declining number of young people in the province, that has to be a priority — but Collins said it’s also about connecting with a lot of other people, too.

On top of that, she said the university is communicating with funding agencies, parents, government and the public.

And with a myriad of different types of research, it’s a complicated job.

“It’s not as straightforward as what you might see in a commercial enterprise where they’re just interested in selling widgets.” Twitter: TelegramJames