New government can rebuild trust in PR branch


Stanley Tromp, Times - Colonist; Victoria, B.C., 15 July 2017


On Tuesday, a new premier and cabinet will be sworn in, and their first acts might set the tone for the rest of the term. Two improvements to hope for are that the NDP administration will de-politicize the public-relations branch and permit civil servants to share their subject expertise freely with the media.

These two quick fixes could be done by order, without legislation, for the most part.

The first concerns a problem created by former B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell in June 2002, when he ordered that public-information officers no longer be hired through the merit-based, non-political process of the Public Service Commission.

That day, the B.C. government fired all of its 270 public information officers, and then about 160 of them were offered new, non-union jobs as political appointees rather than career civil servants.

"This is not just a straight union job," Campbell said frankly. "This is a job that is going to require commitment to the government's objectives."

It was a reversal of his repeatedly stated previous promise to de-politicize the system. (The move was widely seen as a means to thwart the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, the BCGEU.)

Campbell's move was condemned by then-NDP leader Joy MacPhail as "overt politicization" of information officers.

"People should now be suspect of the communications that are coming from government," said then-BCGEU president George Heyman, now an NDP MLA.

Their words remain just as valid today. The solution is to restore the statesmanlike pre-2002 communications hiring model.

Instead of the turmoil and trauma of revolving-door mass firings upon each change of government, such new professionalism might bring more self-respect, with job security raising the officers' morale. Such political purges also waste taxpayers' money, as millions of dollars are paid to fired public servants. Information officers hired by merit instead of patronage would likely be trusted more by the media.

Second, experts should be allowed to share their unfiltered expertise on the record to the press and hence the public.

The Vancouver city hall experience is instructive here. In 2010, city manager Penny Ballem's new policy forbade staffers to speak directly to journalists, and filtered all questions through one "corporate communications" branch, filled with information officers who were largely ignorant of the subjects. As in Stephen Harper's Ottawa, this system became a time-wasting, heavily politicized and infuriating bottleneck for reporters on deadline. (Justin Trudeau later lifted Harper's gag order on federal scientists.)

In the 2014 civic election, Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was lambasted for this quagmire, and after his narrow victory, he changed his policy (as former Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs, now incoming premier John Horgan's chief of staff, could recall).

Instead, city hall posted online a list of nearly three dozen expert officials, from the city manager down to the heads of city finance, planning, engineering, housing and sustainability programs, whom reporters could contact directly. The communications department would still handle coordination of major media events, do a few simple factual checks, and track issues management.

This solution could be applied across the B.C. government, with potentially more than a hundred authorized subject experts (who could talk unmonitored by information officers), although a more general freedom to speak is even better.

Style can colour the substance, and if the new administration is keen to differentiate itself from the former one, a freer communications policy is the best way to do so. In its current vulnerable position, it might view this move as a gamble, worried that one exposed governmental error could topple it. But I believe the risk is overestimated, the public capacity to forgive underestimated, and this supposed risk outweighed by the newfound gain in public trust. There is also far less need for partisan information officers, who now outnumber journalists by five-to-one, than in 2002, due to the sadly downsized newsrooms and the impaired state of the investigative reporting that is so essential to democracy.

The public should never forget that the main goal of many public relations branches is not to inform but to influence. Governments usually dismiss complaints about their information practices as the media's "inside baseball," but nothing could be further from the truth. Journalists work to bring you news of health-and-safety risks, environmental impacts and the use of your tax dollars. For this, the public needs all the facts.

In sum, such new openness would project a government's confidence in its vision rather than insecurity, and trustworthiness in lieu of manipulation.

A freer B.C. communications system, as described above, could also be an inspiration to the rest of the country. 


Stanley Tromp of Vancouver is a longtime independent news reporter and author of a book on freedom-of-information laws.