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Communication breakdown

Geoff Helisma

At yesterday’s Clarence Valley council (CVC) meeting (after the Independent went to press), councillors were asked to support the organisation’s first ‘official’ communications policy.

Providing advice to councillors regarding a recommendation to adopt ‘Communications Policy 1.0’, staff wrote: “In response to the submissions following the period of public exhibition, Council communicates its actions broadly to a wide audience, it is not contained to communicating with Media only and therefore a Communication Policy is considered most appropriate.

“The Policy has undergone a review for minor grammatical inconsistencies, but feedback has not changed the intent of the policy.

“Responses to feedback is contained in the attached table and submission in full are also attached to the report.”

That was the sum total of advice contained in the report to council, which was supplemented with “please see above and Council’s responses to the submissions in Attachment C”.

As far as staff were concerned, the only necessary amendment to the publicly exhibited draft policy was the “review for minor grammatical inconsistencies”, however, one submitter thought it was more than minor: “For a Communications Policy of all things, I am apalled (sic) by the number of grammatical errors!”

Councillor Debrah Novak, who tabled a notice of motion (NOM), to develop a draft media policy, at the February CVC meeting, served up some scathing criticism in her submission to the exhibited draft policy.

“I am disappointed CVC Communications team saw my draft media policy as a threat to their existence,” she wrote.

“The CVC Communication Policy is a generic policy at best … [and] … appears more for the use of marketing and spin and doesn’t deal or provide any professional media advice or guidelines for all new media platforms…

“…As CVC has no trained media professionals on their staff [note, CVC has since employed a communications and brand officer] and has had none for two years they are not qualified to be giving advice on any media matters including a Media Policy.

“My job as an elected Councillor is to provide you with a draft policy and your job as operations is [to] develop the guidelines in which you want a media policy to work.

“There is a huge difference between a Communication Policy and a Media Policy and clearly CVC staff have not understood this.”

Councillor Novak’s NOM to the February CVC meeting was supported 5-4 (councillors Williamson, Lysaught, Baker and Kingsley were opposed); however, none of her suggestions saw the light of day.

Staff’s response to Cr Novak was short and to the point; “Noted,” they wrote. “Council communicates its actions broadly to a wide audience; it is not contained to communicating with Media only.”

There were seven submissions, some of which provided extensive commentary and suggestions about how CVC could improve its communications with ratepayers.

One submission, which CVC staff interpreted as “Support for policy” actually stated: “I wholeheartedly agree with and support the following points which I regularly hear expressed throughout the community: It is essential that council keeps the community informed in a completely transparent manner.

“Council must find better ways to engage effectively with stakeholders, especially now that local newspapers are no longer easily available to the community, as has been traditionally the situation.

“Many in the community do not understand how local government operates and its limitations in ensuring our community is in an optimum state for the majority. Council needs to create meaningful ways of achieving this.”

The submitter goes on to write that “many in the community never receive the council’s media announcements … In many situations, such as the announcement of new development applications, most in the community only find out … by word of mouth or community social media, usually when it is too late to make submissions, given the opportunity only exists for 14 days, a far too short a period for the community in general and for most community organisations, which only meet monthly.”