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The City of Kelowna’s direct relationship with local ‘news’ company Kelowna Now

The company that owns Kelowna Now inherited an agency contract with the City of Kelowna, including buying ads and at times direct access to city materials and social media channels.
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February 21, 2017 - 12:49 PM

'I WAS DEFINITELY CONCERNED WHEN (THE MERGER) OCCURRED'

KELOWNA - For more than a year, the City of Kelowna’s communications department has been working directly with the company that produces local 'news' site Kelowna Now.

Tired of sending request for proposals for all kinds of design, print and copy work for reports and open houses — and ad buys — the City sought one company to take it all under contract as an 'agency of record' and awarded it to Pulse Group of Kamloops in 2012.

The City had to revisit that agreement after Pulse Group merged in January 2016 with Csek Creative in Kelowna, which publishes Kelowna Now.

In 2015, the City paid more than $256,000 and in 2016, more than $151,000 under contracts to the agent. A spokesperson for the City says the contract mainly involves print and design work for city reports and events in various departments of city business. Those figures include a separate contract to sell advertising at Kelowna International Airport.

The ‘agency of record’ may also have had periodic direct access to the City of Kelowna website and had direct access to some of its social media channels, including Facebook pages.

Pulse Group/Csek Creative/Kelowna Now all work out of the same office downtown including a shared front desk and common space with reporters for the site. Neither Kelowna Now, nor the City of Kelowna have clarified this relationship nor disclosed it.

City communications director Carla Weaden says the city had to consider the future of its contract when she learned of the relationship the City inherited.

“I was definitely concerned when (the merger) occurred and had several conversations with the principal of Pulse,” she says. “The decision at the time was that we were almost four years into a five-year contract” so the city decided to just carry on. The contract for agency of record and the airport advertising contracts are expected to go to proposal again this year.

Weaden says she had just two concerns: The integrity of the information shared with the agency and that the agency would place ads on Kelowna Now on behalf of some of the City’s various departments.

Before proceeding, Weaden says the City had Pulse staff sign confidentiality agreements, though that doesn’t include ‘reporters’ and ‘content strategists’ employed for various roles in the enterprise.

The agency of record has access to unpublished annual reports, staff reports and marketing and other information before they are made public, as well as access to managers and staff and strategies of the City of Kelowna.

Weaden was unaware the City purchased ‘sponsored content’ on Kelowna Now and was not aware that agency staff had direct access to its social media channels. It’s unclear from Weaden’s statements if the agency had direct access to its website.

“I have been told that the (agency) has never had access to the back-end of our website – they have provided content which we then upload,” Weaden said in an email, however: “While not a normal practice there may be reasons we would provide some third party access to our back-end if they were conducting strategic web work on our behalf – this would be for a specific time with limited access.”

She said the City is satisfied with the relationship and it has raised no issues it couldn't mitigate.

Part of the agent's responsibilities under the contract was to direct part of the city’s advertising budget. In 2016, the City spent roughly $146,000 on media advertising including roughly $69,000 in newspapers, $50,000 on radio, $16,000 on web advertising — including $6,000 for Kelowna Now — and nearly $9,000 to Facebook.

City communications director unclear on spending

It’s unclear how much of that spending was directed by the agency of record.

It’s also unclear if the $6,000 to Kelowna Now included three ‘sponsored content’ ‘stories’ promoting City messages about water conservation in May — re-written press releases that were carried in some form by nearly every other media in town as a service of news and at no charge to the city.

Weaden was initially surprised to learn that the City bought content on the site and after learning of it, said she had concerns.

“The one change I would like to see made going forward (is) that if we sponsor the content that the City of Kelowna is clearly identified as the sponsor unlike the generic approach taken today.”

She said the City is not opposed to buying more ‘sponsored content’ with local media.

Weaden says due to media inquiries, the agency will no longer have direct access to the Kelowna International Airport’s Facebook account, but again, that is unclear.

“Through this process it did come to my attention that the (agency of record) (prior to merging with Csek) had full access to the Airport’s Facebook account while they were administering a specific campaign on the Airport’s behalf. They no longer have access to this account,” she said. “While this is not a normal practice once again depending on what function is required there may be times we provide some access to our channels.”

“I act as the role of editor. I make sure the stories we do are what our brand is.”

Csek Creative is owned by Nikki and Jim Csek, and added Rob Cupello from Pulse as partner last year. In 2012, it converted welcometokelowna.com to Kelowna Now and began doing ‘news.’

Calls to the editor of Kelowna Now were directed to Jim Csek, the chief operating officer. The website employs no editor and reporters report directly to Csek.

“I act as the role of editor,” he said. “I make sure the stories we do are what our brand is.”

He said he had no concerns about the relationship between Kelowna Now and the City of Kelowna.

Csek said Kelowna Now is separate from Csek Creative/Pulse but says he employed no internal mechanisms, policies or procedures to separate editorial from the creative teams that work in the same building and share common space after inheriting the City’s agent of record.

“The City of Kelowna council already vetted this through and council approved,” he says. “(Reporters) don’t get to see the stuff that goes through the agency… they don’t do that for sure, we don’t allow that.... Our reporters don’t dig into stuff like that… I don’t see how this is a news story.”

— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca


To contact a reporter for this story, email Marshall Jones or call 250-718-2724 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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