Communications should be at the heart of decision making.
My first exposure to local government was reporting council meetings as a cadet journalist in country Victoria during the 1980s. A lot has changed in newspapers and municipal governance since then.
Journalists don’t use typewriters any more and digital cameras have made darkrooms redundant.
Since those early days, my career has taken me to various roles in media, state and territory ministerial offices and corporate communications.
A key learning I’ve drawn from those experiences is the importance of involving the “comms guy” (or girl) at the highest level of an organisation.
There should be a direct report to the CEO and decision makers.
In state governments, effective ministerial advisers are able to politely cut through red tape and reach senior bureaucrats to ensure policy and operational outcomes are sensitive to public opinion and don’t have unintended consequences.
At the federal level there are geographical and systemic hurdles to overcome. The Commonwealth public service is also notoriously moribund.
In Canberra, I became aware of communications officers who spent several hours crafting a Twitter or Facebook post, and then had to wait up to 24 hours for departmental approval, only to have it vetoed by a minister’s office.
It made me realise the ABC program Utopia is actually a documentary.
Local government communications
Local government should be much more agile, although I’ve observed in the past this isn’t always the case.
Communications and media staff should give a community perspective to operational matters. They should be like political advisers in a Minister’s office, sensitive to potential negative events that could damage a council’s reputation.
For example, a media enquiry to Bundaberg Regional Council involved the issuing of a compliance notice to the owner of a cockatoo, which was being kept contrary to a local law.
The bird was a companion to disabled children and there were no complaints from immediate neighbours. All the ingredients were there for this to be an extremely negative story for council.
Instead of giving media an officious regulatory response, communications staff worked across the organisation to compile a more compassionate message, highlighting the bird owner’s right to comply within a reasonable timeframe, which was at council’s discretion.
If my position didn’t interact directly with the Mayor and CEO it would have been much harder to achieve that outcome.
A recent restructure by Bundaberg CEO Steve Johnston means the position I now hold is part of the Executive Leadership Team and has broader management responsibilities.
It’s a good model which means that communications is at the heart of decision making.
- A version of this article was originally published on the LGAQ website.