Medium and message

Communication is our business, not our practice. That’s one of the quotes I’ll always remember from the old days, back when newspaper types used to gather at provincial conferences to discuss their dark trade.

Communication is our business, not our practice. That’s one of the quotes I’ll always remember from the old days, back when newspaper types used to gather at provincial conferences to discuss their dark trade.

The best quotes always came while at the bar, after the workshops and seminars.

The same can also apply to politicians. (The quote, not the bar sessions.) Perhaps even more so now, when the higher up the political ladder one goes, the more spin staff are hired to tweet to us, but not to communicate.

In that aspect, Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is indeed the message now.

So perhaps it would be inevitable that civic government — the one closest to the voters — would develop a need to standardize the way it talks to the public. On everything from dandelions in the playgrounds to the effects of addiction and homelessness in the city.

Our particular city began to change its governance model two or three elections ago to include an evolving four-year plan within a system of planning outlines (our “charters”). As that came about, it became apparent that everyone in Red Deer City Hall needs to be on the same page, when voters get engaged.

So when you have all these other planning tools already, what do you do next but build a toolkit to talk about it?

Elaine Vincent, director of Development Services for Red Deer, said the City of Victoria recently developed a communications toolkit to make sure the message from City Hall gets out in a consistent way through all departments. Vincent also said the toolkit standardizes how the message from us voters travels through the City Hall maze of offices.

Vincent told me that Red Deer caught a bit of a bargain working with Victoria’s consultants to adapt the toolkit for here. There’s not a whole lot of important stuff that you can get for less than $31,000 these days.

Time will tell if wrapping talk in a package is indeed such a bargain, but I figure it’s worth trying.

Think of it this way: in an election, candidates tell us what they’re going to do for us. They hear stuff on the campaign trail, for sure, but what they say to us is hugely filtered through the candidate’s vision. In any event, voters cast their ballots based on what the candidate says he or she will do.

After the election, their cellphones ring constantly with people telling them what to do. What happens to the vision?

Well, in Red Deer, it’s hammered out in the four-year plan. And all our phone calls and meetings get prioritized by how closely they fit into the plan, and by how broadly held the messages are from those phone calls and meetings.

Vincent says the toolkit helps both elected councillors and admin staff prioritize the message, when people call about their issues. How many people are affected? Is action required now or later? How can we guarantee the right people are hearing the message?

Vincent also says the toolkit helps staff get your message through overlapping departments, and that when staff anywhere in the city’s large organization talk to the public, they speak with a more unified voice. That’s the plan anyway. And if there’s anything our city is thoroughly engaged in right now, it’s creating plans.

So how does that affect you? If you as a citizen want to comment on a direction the city is taking, you’ll probably need to at least be familiar with the plan. There’s plenty of information on that on the city’s website.

If you’re not right up to speed on the plan, this toolkit is supposed to make it so that councillors and city managers can all explain it to you — in the same way. The whole effort is to help get you more engaged with the direction the city is growing.

You can still call a councillor and gripe about your neighbour’s dog barking all night. You’re the taxpayer.

But from dandelion control to rebuilding our city’s core, or from traffic problems to defining what we want to be as a city in the next 20 or 30 years, this toolkit is supposed to make sure your part of the message isn’t lost in the maze at City Hall.

You’ll never get this kind of treatment from the province or the feds, for all the tax money you send them. So perhaps we shouldn’t get too snarky about the $31,000 spent on a toolkit to package how we talk.

The medium — the plan and the toolkit to explain it — has indeed become the message.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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