The province now hires an army of communications consultants and flacks – many of whom were at one time colleagues of mine – to make sure its message stays on track. These ranks far exceed the number of journalists whose job it is to give the public a balanced view of how their institutions work.
Concern about branding has these hired guns twisting themselves in knots to make sure the message the media gets conforms to an artificial identity they have created for these public institutions.
The City of Saskatoon has also fallen into this trap. For many years I reported on civic affairs along with Art Robinson. We would routinely roam the offices at city hall, visiting all from the senior administration to the cubicles of engineers, and these committed public servants would speak openly and freely about what they were doing, including explaining errors and prescribing corrections.
Former city commissioner Marty Irwin recently reminded me that the reason the administration had no concern about our impromptu visits was it had confidence in the quality, intelligence and dedication of civic employees, even if they may have wished at times we didn’t ask the questions.
Today, civic employees are restricted from talking to reporters unless they have undergone media training – that is, lessons in how to spin the message to protect the brand. Reporters are asked not to approach staff directly but to vet their inquiries through the communications office.
This strategy, by the way, is doomed to failure. Rather than protecting the brand, these public institutions are shrouding it in cynicism and suspicion.