Missing the message

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: disconnect between regional district and the public needs to be addressed

Mike Macnabb put himself in the shoes of the average resident.

While heading to an open house on the draft agricultural plan, the BX-Silver Star director went to the Regional District of North Okanagan website to confirm the times.

“I used our website and it’s difficult to find things,” he told his colleagues last week.

In another case, Macnabb checked the website for details on a public open house at the BX-Swan Lake fire hall.

“It wasn’t advertised anywhere. I couldn’t find it. There was no link to say this is important to your community,” he said.

Increasingly, Macnabb has stepped up the pressure on the RDNO board and administration to spread the word about what they do.

“There is a global issue of how we communicate with our residents,” he said.

“Taxpayers put us here and are paying for what goes on here, and it’s incumbent that it goes back out to them.”

It’s not to say that there isn’t communication happening, but it’s done off the side of desks by employees who aren’t experts in media and public relations. That means press releases are sporadic.

David Sewell, chief administrative officer, admits that keeping the public informed is a topic of discussion among staff and the board.

“We are investigating avenues for ways to improve communications but they have good and bad points,” he said.

Primarily, the concern is about financial resources and adding to the bureaucracy.

However, it should be pointed out that a communications officer doesn’t simply fire off press releases. They also provide critical advice on how to avoid controversy, ensure the message going out to the public is clear and they target strategies that reflect the objectives of the organization.

Speaking further about the issue, Sewell said, “We are looking at a multi-pronged approach to communications.”

But currently, the emphasis is on posting information to the website and hoping residents see it, or placing advertisements in this newspaper. And that approach is acceptable as newspapers remain a relevant provider of information and analysis.

However, no one can be oblivious to the growing strength of social media.

As it stands, RDNO has no social media presence and that’s largely because of concerns  that surfing Facebook diverts staff’s attention away from the business at hand. And while that is an issue at many workplaces, RDNO can’t dismiss the ability of Facebook, Twitter and other social media to reach out to people instantly.

Details can be provided immediately about situations that are urgent and rapidly evolving, such  as a boil water advisory. Social media could have played a critical role in keeping residents informed last year when Cooke Creek went on the rampage and cut off Kingfisher.

But media relations isn’t just about emergencies and controlling the message. It’s about transparency, building a sense of community in a diverse region and telling the story of public institutions.

“We do some pretty good work here but it’s not recognized because nobody knows about it,” said Macnabb.

“The City of Vernon does a good job with communicating to people and saying ‘Rah, rah,’ but we don’t do that.”

The City of Vernon’s communications process has ramped up significantly in the past year, but there are other jurisdictions that are also leading edge. They include Enderby, Lake Country, Kelowna and the Columbia-Shuswap and Thompson-Nicola regional districts.

Increasingly, there is a general public apathy about all levels of government, and some of that may be a result of questionable political decisions.

But this disconnect could also be  from people not knowing what’s going on.