Does CBRM Need Another Communications Person?

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality, having survived into the early years of the 21st century without a communications person, suddenly needs two of them.

Mayor Cecil Clarke, who made history (and by-passed municipal hiring rules) by tapping Christina Lamey as his own personal “Communication Advisor” now wants to hire a second flak for the broader CBRM.

Civic Centre, CBRM

Civic Centre (or City Hall?) CBRM

On the one hand, it’s probably good that the Mayor hasn’t decided to go in the opposite direction, dispensing with all advice on communications in favor of pre-dawn tweet storms. (Although Trump has given Twitter a bad rap, in the hands of a more accomplished politician, like Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, it can be a very effective communications channel.)

But on the other hand, public relations people outnumber journalists in Canada by roughly four to one. For every reporter trying to get a straight answer to a simple question there are four communications professionals trying to massage or frame or spin — or just hide — it. So the arrival of yet another PR person is never going to make a journalist’s heart beat high with joy.

Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald, for his part, thinks a second communications officer is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity. He was heard on CBC radio fretting that (as a “political” staffer) Lamey will depart with the mayor, leaving the CBRM at a loss in the communications department.

This confirms everything I’ve suspected about Lamey’s mission creep: why would her departure affect the wider CBRM unless she’d inserted herself into communications beyond the Mayor’s Office? (Which, of course, she has — I know this, because the only answer she’s deigned to give me in the past two months was to a question I’d asked the head of Public Works and Engineering.)

Asked by the CBC’s Holly Connors about the need for a second communications officer, Mayor Clarke went full Phil Spector, giving a “wall of sound” response that included everything from the increasing frequency of intense storms to the roll-out of the recreation master plan. He even threw in the possibility that the communications officer would assist with freedom of information/protection of privacy (FOIPOP) requests, which was pretty cheeky, given his administration recently put a $42,804.50 price tag on a citizen’s FOIPOP request.

I’ve never accepted the rationale for Lamey’s appointment — being ready, willing and able to communicate with the public and the press should be part and parcel of being mayor of the CBRM and, in fact, was right up until 2012. (And for the record, I felt that way even before she sent me to the woodshed.)

I recently requested a copy of her job description which is as follows:

The Communication Advisor is part of the Mayor’s Office and is responsible for setting objectives, planning, implementing and overseeing all aspects of the Mayor’s communications strategy and requirements. The Communication Advisor’s responsibilities include a comprehensive communications and public relations strategic plan that conveys the Mayor’s positions and policies to the general public and internal and external stakeholders. The Communication Advisor has superior strategic judgment and can navigate complex challenges and opportunities while imagining new and creative ways to inform the public and stakeholders of the activities, policies, positions and goals of the CBRM. The Communications Advisor reports to the Mayor.

I have seen no evidence of “new and creative ways” to inform the public (and I’ve come up with three just since reading that description — fortune cookies; an LED ticker circling the exterior of the council chambers; a singing frog). In fact, Clarke has one method of informing the public of things: hold a meeting at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion, preferably mid-morning on a weekday.

I do not think the mayor of the CBRM needs a dedicated communications person. I do not think paying for two communications people is a wise use of money in a cash-strapped municipality. Therefore, I would suggest that if the mayor insists on having a full-time, municipally employed spokesperson he give up his “political” spokesperson — although honestly, I am not convinced the CBRM needs a spokesperson at all.

Since I launched the Spectator, I have been able to communicate directly with CBRM personnel in the finance, solid waste and procurement departments. They’ve answered my questions promptly and accurately and in a refreshingly spin-free manner. If the addition of a full-time communications and information officer means I will no longer be able to do that, it will be a loss. (If the new communications officer refuses to answer my emails, like the mayor’s present communication advisor, it will be a farce.)

The communications “problem” I see in the CBRM is that our Mayor doesn’t really like to communicate — not even with his own council, which he prefers to surprise with motions they’ve had no time to review or research. (Extend Harbor Port Development Partners’ exclusive contract for five years! Declare Business Cape Breton our economic development entity! Remove responsibility for the container port project from the Port board!) He hides reports from them (and the public). He charges $42,804.50 for FOIPOPs. He goes to China without telling people. And his attitude is contagious — I heard Steve Sutherland of CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning say they’d been trying, unsuccessfully, for over a month to get an interview with someone at the Port of Sydney Development Corporation about the selection of the new port board.

That’s the real problem and one I doubt will be solved by the hiring of a municipal communications and information officer.


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