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Chasing ambulances – Under attack: what’s the best policy?

As a tragic local government addict, I spend far too much time reading media articles and opinion pieces about councils around the country. These are sometimes generated by, or often reproduced, in social media. The pickings are rich. There are four general categories:

• the council stuffed up;

• a resident is upset about something the council did, or did not do;

• an elected member is aggrieved; or

• an “expert” or commentator has an opinion.

Radio broadcasters and their listeners also frequently offer a rich vein of general ignorance and repetitive negative bias.

There is a (very rare) fifth category: the article or opinion is libellous. Note: perceived libel is different to actual libel.

Perceived libel (AKA: “misreporting” or “they only gave one side”) happens when the council understands much more about the complexity of facts, timeframes or processes, and the reporting does not go into any of this. Instead, it focuses on one or two of the unfortunate and misunderstood pieces of the puzzle.

Actual libel should be dealt with – forthwith. Go directly to the reporter and/or editor and be clear that nothing less than a retraction will do. Or, in the case of social media, place a brief clarifying statement requiring retraction. In both cases, be prepared to follow through. No niceties for libel.

If it’s not libel, remedies for the first four categories are as follows.

The council stuffed up

No matter how badly it is reported, if a journalist has been able to write a non-libellous story about it, the council must have done something wrong – even if it was unintentional. So, deal with it. Starting with an apology is good.

A resident is upset

Contact them directly: without rancour or agenda. Listen to them and then follow up. Even if you can’t ‘fix’ whatever it is they are upset about, at least have the courtesy of directly explaining why. 


An elected member is aggrieved

Either the Code of Conduct needs to be activated or, if the grievance is based on a genuinely held perspective, then so be it. Alternatively, let their colleagues provide balancing perspectives. All the better if this is conducted through a public media platform. This can only contribute to enhancing interest in local democracy. It might be messy, but it’s usually interesting.

An “expert” or commentator speaks

Example: a community newspaper provides the local ratepayers’ association or a particular interest group some editorial space to provide “opinion” pieces about the local council. They publish serial articles covering a predictable message focusing on the myriad ways the council wastes ratepayers’ money – fake news, poor research, lack of context and appealing to people with a certain existing bias.

The articles tend to be incredibly negatively biased and annoyingly readable.

As counter-intuitive as this might seem, the best thing to do is, just walk away.  Do not give them any more oxygen.

People are not reading the original piece to get clarity or a fresh perspective. They are reading it to confirm what they already know to be true. No amount of time and energy creating a well-crafted “gotcha” response to clarify all the things that are wrong in the offending article will make any difference. All this does is set up an attack/defence paradigm which gives more prominence to what was said in the first place.

Conflicting views – regardless if half of them are inaccurate – make for entertaining reading.

Councils need to behave strategically – not reactively.

Councils hold truckloads of accurate, relevant and potentially interesting information. Much of this could transform community understanding and perceptions if it were consistently and proactively communicated.

Being strategic about communication requires long-term, principled and pragmatic implementation that guides wise and thoughtful decision-making rather than reactive, stereotypical responses that play to people’s prejudices.

Instead of spending time poring over what is being (mis)reported, all councils should be acting instead, collating, framing and releasing their own good quality information in a sustained, targeted and appealing manner.

This is a much better investment than chasing ambulances.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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