By: Thomas Rohner
Last week Valemount Council adopted a communications framework as part of their ongoing communications strategy development. That the Village is developing a communications strategy is necessary and good; that they are taking their time and consulting other strategies is intelligent and prudent; but their framework, which is only a starting point and is far from being comprehensive yet, reiterates what most people already know: the corporate structure of local government does not lend itself well to meaningful community engagement. And this is for good reason: corporate structures undermine democratic processes. Nowhere is this more evident than in communication strategies.
In the 10 page document outlining the communication framework, the word “citizen” or even “community member” is never used; instead the word “stakeholder” appears six times. The crucial difference between a stakeholder and a citizen is that the former is communicated to, while citizens are communicated with. There is mention (twice) of community collaboration, but that doesn’t change the fact that the corporate idea of communication is to control the flow of information as much as possible. Anybody that’s talked to somebody who needs to control the conversation knows that it’s not really a dialogue.
The frameworks talks of “outcome-oriented goals”, the Village’s “brand consistency” and a “strategy to build relationships;” in real life, when has strategizing a relationship ever worked out, except for material gain? “Without protocols, information sharing can become disjointed, inefficient and unproductive, which can create undue risks for an organization and result in significant costs,” the document says. True: the Village needs to be organized, careful and conscious of how it communicates. But how does it plan to do this? “Consistency and repetition are keys to success in communications,” the document says. This is a golden rule of corporate communication: repeat your message until it is repeated by your target audience. Any time I’ve stubbornly repeated a point in conversation, I’ve only aggravated and infuriated the unfortunate listener.
What’s most troubling, though, is the corporate assumption that news can be chosen and vetted by bureaucratic channels, rather than by those they allegedly serve asking questions and seeking answers. A flow chart in the document titled “Is it News?” asks first “What happened?” followed by “Should the public know or be informed?” If the answer to the last question is no, then “No statement is needed.” Their criteria for “news” is if it affects a large group of people, is a significant policy change or if it involves substantial money. As reasonable as the criteria sounds, though, the corporate strategy is to determine what is news, and therefore the citizens are on a need-to-know basis, not equal participants in a dialogue.
The Village of Valemount should be commended for its attempts to formalize a communication strategy; it’s more than can be said for the Village of McBride. And the last installment of Community Conversations was indeed more engaging, more like a dialogue with citizens. But I implore the Village to consult non-corporate communication strategies. And I implore Valemount, and especially McBride residents, to contact their village office with ideas and concerns on what meaningful communication would actually look like.