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An open communications strategy is essential

I've managed to stay away from criticizing the municipality since I've started working here, choosing instead to educate the public on how to deal with a crummy roommate and how to kidnap that roommate's dog.

I've managed to stay away from criticizing the municipality since I've started working here, choosing instead to educate the public on how to deal with a crummy roommate and how to kidnap that roommate's dog.

But now the municipality has now gone and done something so backwards in its logic as to yank a young man from his cozy habitation of muted opinion. The RMOW, our local government representing a mere 12,000 residents is introducing a media policy that would see the mayor as the point man for comment on all issues.

New CAO Mike Furey, Mayor Ken Melamed and communications officers handed down the news during a press briefing last week. The former assistant deputy premier (read: entrenched bureaucrat) is bringing to Whistler the communications policy of the provincial government, which, based alone on their bungled strategy in dealing with the HST, is hardly the best example of a functioning communications program. People basically hate the provincial government for being faceless and out of touch with the taxpayers.

And now Furey, based on the orders of council, risks leading the RMOW further down the road toward being completely reviled.

Furey said the strategy is meant to control the international image of Whistler because, while it is still a small town, what happens here is read across the world in media outlets. Under the new strategy, only the mayor can be quoted in the media while staff can no longer be named unless they are directly addressing council in meetings. This strategy is also a way to control the flow of information coming out of the municipal hall as means of repairing its negative reputation.

Unfortunately, cutting off the flow of information will do more harm than good. In dealing with communications people daily, journalists learn a few things about what makes an effective communications strategy. The first thing is for an organization decide on a strategy for tackling issues head on, then secondly to respond swiftly to the media as openly and transparently as possible.

Over the last year, the RMOW has done a lousy job of controlling its message, choosing to take a defensive approach to the hard subjects - pay parking, asphalt plant - rather than tackling them head on.

The RMOW's reputation issues stem from a taxpayer base that feels as though their local government does not have their best interests in mind when make decisions. According to the 2009 RMOW Community Life Tracking Survey (CLTS), only 52 per cent of permanent residents trusted that local decision makers have the best interests of the community in mind when making the decision most of the time. For seasonal residents, the number was 43 per cent.

2010's numbers are not yet available, and 2011 is not yet over but if the anecdotes are any indication then those percentages have probably dropped since 2009. Between public outcry over the asphalt plant, dismay over pay parking and tax increases, cuts to transit, municipal government's popularity is at a considerable low. The slashing of Bill Barrett and Melamed's car tires, as ludicrous a symbol as it is shows the frustrations that residents are feeling. They're pissed-off. Municipal employees are being dealt with ominously in the streets over their salaries, and it's supposedly getting very uncomfortable for everyone working over at municipal hall. And now they've chosen to respond to the poor reputation by tightly controlling access to information by the media.

According to the CLTS, close to 60 per cent of permanent residents and over half of seasonal residents prefer newspaper inserts or ads as the preferred channel of communication from the RMOW. So in order to read these messages from local government, they need to pick up the paper.

Only they're not picking up the paper to read an ad paid for by the RMOW. They're picking up the paper week after week to read news stories that these local papers are providing. Whistler residents have come to depend on what the reporters are writing because we've become the trusted dispatchers of local news.

I have conversations frequently with people who base all their information on what they read in Pique and The Question . Even the most critical of readers is influenced by what they encounter in the media, but the information we provide is shaped not only by the information that the municipality provides, but also in the method by which it is shared. The more roadblocks to information that is provided, the more barriers there are to information that (we feel) should be easily and readily available. This is an unnecessary obstacle in what could (and should) be a smooth relationship.

Now, I do believe that municipal workers make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of the people. I also believe that 95 per cent of the world's problems are based on shortsightedness and blind ignorance. Humans, I swear, can't see more than three steps ahead, so more often than not our decisions, which may be pure in intention, get completely bungled because we're ignorant animals in a complex world.

The municipality is no exception. I think they deserve some reprieve in the hatred that's been sent their way. That's not good for anybody. Negativity's not good for anybody. The key to making this relationship work, between the press, the people and the government, is an open and free exchange of information. Anything less leads to conspiracy, resentment and other ill-will that can be easily avoided.