KELOWNA - The 2015 citizens survey is due out in a couple of weeks and the city is expecting to do as good or better in most categories. But city officials might be surprised to find they’re doing great in a category they don’t even measure — communications with the media.
While journalists love to gripe about how governments of all levels get in the way of the information they are seeking, most around here change their tune when talking about the City of Kelowna.
“The City of Kelowna is the exception to the rule,” says Chris Walker, a local CBC radio journalist. “They are the gold standard.”
Unlike other levels of government, and indeed, unlike most other civic administrations in B.C., media communications at the city are decentralized, allowing journalists to contact what Kelowna's communications supervisor Tom Wilson calls “subject experts” without having to go through the dreaded communications officer.
Wilson is a former journalist himself and knows the value his former colleagues place on unfettered access.
“The benefits of connecting reporters directly far outweighs the risks by a mile,” Wilson says. He adds the philosophy of open access predates his time and is really just an extension of how the city operates overall.
“We are an open organization,” he says. “Almost all our work is done in public anyway.”
Wilson recalls running into communications handlers in government and the tactics they use.
“You can’t help but wonder if you’re getting the full story,” he says.
But the city doesn’t just thrust someone in the planning department or the waste water treatment plant in front of the media.
“We give media training as part of the deal,” Wilson says. “We invite you guys (reporters) in to speak to staff and introduce ourselves and tell them ‘here’s our approach and why we do what we do.’ That way, we’re not just nameless, faceless voices over the phone.”
Some take to the media training better than others, but all staff are empowered to speak to the media about their own division and area of expertise or connect them with someone who is. He says that includes the gardener on the street or any other city worker.
While there is no accurate measure of journalist satisfaction with the system, Wilson says the payoff comes with the trust it engenders.
“Trust amongst the media translates into trust among citizens,” he says. “When somebody is saying the same message over and over, or it seems rehearsed, people become suspicious."
Wilson says he knows anecdotally that Kelowna receives far fewer Freedom of Information requests than other communities of similar size, which could be a result of the City's media strategy.
Media relations is just one aspect of the city’s overall communications strategy, which Wilson describes as “audience centered” and includes everything from social media to online forums and electronic newsletters.
“The city’s email news service, in which the public can have information sent straight to their in-boxes, now has a subscriber base of more than 10,000,” he says. “We try to reach people where it’s most convenient for them."
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