PR, the Lakes Council and the cost of democracy

 

4 October 2019

 

Muddy Waters

Rotorua Lakes Council has defended its record against an in-depth report by Radio New Zealand that found it was among the councils with the biggest increases in aspects of public relations spending in New Zealand.

Even though the council increased in-house public relations staff by 250 per cent from two in 2012-13 to seven in 2018-2019, it was the biggest spender of all the councils in spending on workers who are in contract for public relations – at a cost of $166,000.

Opinions are split in the media as to the merit of expanding the spend on PR by local bodies, with one side saying it was necessary given the information demands on councils now as well as the greater variation of media outlets available - Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others, for example.  Other working journalists, however, complain that increased PR numbers make it virtually impossible to access politicians and staff at local bodies when comment is required on even simple issues.

The Radio New Zealand article did note that PR and advertising total costs other than wages remained relatively flat across the 63 councils surveyed.  Indicating that collateral costs had not soared in the same way as the cost of bodies protecting and promoting their images had done.

 

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick, who is standing again in this year’s local body elections, declined to comment when asked on Friday 4 October.  However, but did refer the query to Lakes CE Geoff Williams, although the query had been with the council since Monday 30 September.

Residents and Ratepayers' endorsed mayoral candidate Reynold Macpherson described the increasing PR costs as an explosion that was distorting the effectiveness and efficiency of governance and undermining democracy.

Geoff Williams, who partly blamed the demise of traditional media, promptly replied after the mayor’s message.  By that time, Reynold Macpherson, Steve Chadwick’s fiercest critic and fellow Mayor candidate replied also but with a stinging condemnation of the council’s spending and PR management.

The following is a copy of the Geoff Williams statement on behalf of the council:

“Council information five years ago was what appeared in newspapers but now people expect to be able to engage with Council in a variety of ways including face to face, by phone and via the likes of social media. In addition, there are heightened expectations to have a say on all sorts of council matters and to know about a multitude of council work that impacts on them or is happening in their community. Those expectations are real and are something this organisation has worked very hard to try and meet.

“During the past few years Rotorua Lakes Council has made a considerable effort to increase engagement with the community and increase the reach of council information by using multiple channels, recognising that people want to access news that is relevant to them in different ways.

“The declining reach of traditional media has added to the increased need and demand for Council communications, information and engagement in order to reach the more than 72,000 people now living in our district.

Council has introduced new channels including livestreaming of meetings, a dedicated online consultation tool (Let’s Talk – Korero Mai), a weekly e-pānui and the Tatau Tatau magazine.

“Added to that is the need for internal communications, information and engagement, the management and maintenance of multiple channels including social media, supporting and maintaining stakeholder relations, graphics, servicing media, providing communications support for multiple projects, services and work programmes, corporate planning and civil defence.

“Communications plays an essential, multi-layered role that requires adequate resourcing. We continue to monitor and review how we engage and communicate with the community and will continue to assess opportunities and seek new channels and new ways to reach residents.”

 

The following is the comment from Reynold Macpherson:

“Residents and Ratepayers' endorsed mayoral candidate Reynold Macpherson is highly critical of how the explosion in public relations in Rotorua is distorting the effectiveness and efficiency of governance, undermining democracy and giving officials a license to play politics.

“Rotorua Lakes Council is a classic case of where PR spending has attempted to ingratiate excessive expenditure on legacy, vanity and payback projects by skimping on the maintenance of basic infrastructure. It has added to the national housing crisis by running down storm water infrastructure and halting several housing-development projects. It is matched by significant under investment in HR functions due to the management of many services being outsourced to widespread dissatisfaction and expensive legal challenges.

"The RLC has also used PR to prevent unwelcome feedback and impose a political narrative. It scrapped the Community Satisfaction Survey after holding critical feedback back until after the 2016 elections and replaced it with contracted polling with the findings kept secret. At the same time cafe-style consultations replaced public hearings, which stopped two-way dialogue between elected representatives and residents and ratepayers and prevented cross communications between interest groups. Meeting procedures have been degraded by defaulting more regularly to 'public excluded' sessions - to avoid political embarrassments when once they were only used to protect commercial interests. 

"The reported expenditure of $166,000 in 2018-2019 is implausible.  The expansion of PR staff is also significantly under reported, with many hidden away in CCOs and in social media teams that are all coordinated by the Manager of the CE's Office.

"In my view the RLC has also crossed a line when its PR and senior staff became politically active in the 2019 elections on behalf of the current power bloc incumbents. The CE's Pre-Election Report boasts their supposed achievements and plans and makes no reference to their many failures.”

 

For more details of the Radio New Zealand article, go to:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/top/399918/councils-public-relations-spending-jumps-latest-figures-show

 

 

 

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