Municipalities drag feet when it comes to informing public

By Robert Washburn

The face of communications for municipalities in Northumberland County is changing rapidly while the strategies used by politicians and bureaucrats are not.

The days when municipalities could simply hold a press conference and information would be spread only via the various local media outlets is long gone.

Today, the presence of the Internet with blogging and other social media, like Facebook and Twitter, render any notion of message control obsolete.

Sure, there used to be the gossip and whisper campaigns previously. And, those continue to exist and represent a hurdle for municipalities trying to communicate a particular message. But the speed and viral nature of the current media environment moves far more quickly and can be incredibly damaging.

Take for example, the recent water troubles in Port Hope. Certainly, the municipality did its due diligence when it called press conferences each day and posted regular updates to its website. But it was unable to control the volumes of information being traded via email, Facebook pages, tweets and blogs, among a host of other methods.

While some carried over these alternate media was accurate and useful, there was plenty that was misinformation. None of it was done with malicious intent, but in a sincere attempt to raise questions and get answers for information floating around the community. There is an uncanny ease with which these concerns and issues can be posted and a response returned. And, people did their utmost to provide good information in return. The accuracy is no better or worse than a conversation over the fence with a neighbour. The trouble is those conversations were private. The social media makes them public. So misinformation was less damaging before.

But Port Hope is not alone. Hamilton Township suffered its own communications disaster twice over the past year. First, the removal of the chief executive officer was shrouded in silence as special meetings and closed door sessions, along with the threat of legal action meant a void of information left to be filled by anyone who was inclined.

Then, there was the train derailment in March, where the internal lack of communication meant the public was left scrambling for answers during a very serious incident. People were evacuated. Again, the media was used in traditional ways to get out information. But, it was not effective. Even Chief Al Mann admitted to Cobourg council in July the media relations was not handled very well.

It is not accidental Cobourg council has hired a consulting company to provide a report to improve both internal and community-based communications. The other municipalities around Northumberland County might be well advised to review communications plans as well, if they exist.

The ability to simply circle the wagons or go silent on an issue will no longer work in the age of instantaneous messaging. And, posting to a corporate municipal website or holding a press conference is no longer a viable bullhorn. By the time everyone is gathered or the release is written and posted, it is way too late.

In an information rich world where just about any questions can be answered with a few clicks of a mouse or tiny keypad of a smartphone, people will not wait. And, just as the old scientific adage goes: when there is a vacuum, something will fill it.

It is very vacuous in Northumberland these days.

First published: Nov. 9, 2011