POLITICS

New media policy in Truro, N.S., part of troubling trend, expert says

07/11/2013 01:02 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT
TRURO, N.S. - A new policy that establishes a communications officer as a single point of contact for media inquiries in Truro, N.S., is part of a troubling trend that undermines trust in public institutions, a public relations expert says.

Barbara Emodi, a communications professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, said decisions like the one made by Truro town council this week increase public cynicism of governments.

"Communicators and spokespeople are often read as an attempt to control the message, control the reality, and that's kind of disturbing," said Emodi.

"It creates the suspicion that you are not being told the truth."

On Monday, councillors in the town of 12,000 unanimously approved a policy that allows them to redirect media questions to a communications officer. They say the policy, which had been in the works for about two years, is intended to streamline the communications process and ensure media inquiries are dealt with more quickly and accurately.

Truro Mayor Bill Mills said the policy is also meant to mitigate the likelihood of the seven-member council being misunderstood or misquoted, particularly in the era of social media.

"Social media takes on a life of its own," Mills said. "I think my council is cognizant of that fact."

Coun. Raymond Tynes, serving his third consecutive term on council, said he was tired seeing statements from individual councillors in the media being misconstrued as the official opinion of town council as a whole.

"I think it's great," Tynes said of the policy.

When asked whether the policy in any way restricts access to councillors, Truro's new communications officer emphasized that they still have the option of speaking out on any issue they wish.

"This just streamlines (the process) a little more," said Amanda Smees, who also serves as the town's executive assistant.

"Council doesn't always have the most up-to-date information that staff has."

Emodi said communications can be challenging for politicians at a municipal level because they aren't professional communicators and often struggle with the transition between speaking publicly and privately.

"People can get themselves into a lot of trouble with offhand comments," she said.

But she said she still has reservations about the overall impact of such policies, especially at the municipal level, because the public should have unfettered access to their local councillors.

"This is the person you phone up and call by first name," she said.

"What's at stake is an access to the democratic process and also just authentic voices in any level of government."

She said when a public official is being asked questions, the public doesn't get an opinion — it gets what a group of people concluded should be their consistent message.

"Big difference."

- By Geordon Omand in Halifax