By Elizabeth Hughes.
Your council’s currency – its perceived value – is built on its reputation. A good or positive reputation is pretty much priceless. But, left unchecked or ignored, a poor or average reputation is a significant organisational risk.
So would the community you serve rate your council’s reputation as high, medium or low? How much effort is made to safeguard or build a positive reputation? And is “our reputation” on your risk register with an associated action plan?
Every action or non-action, of every staff or elected member, potentially influences your council’s reputation either positively or negatively.
Reputation is not just something that the communication manager can magic out of a hat. Does everyone in your council understand their role in contributing to reputation?
In saying that, the following is the story of the recent summer “holiday” of a communication manager who, like many council staff, has an over-developed sense of responsibility for reputation management.
December 22, 5pm Send out the final advisory covering holiday office hours and services. Post it on the council’s Facebook / website. Drive home. Find two missed calls from media and 25 comments on Facebook.
Follow up the media enquiries about rubbish and water (the reporters had not actually read the advisories) and respond to several comments on Facebook in a proactive attempt to stop them going feral.
Christmas Eve Reporter phones to get clarity on the freedom campers’ policy and Easter trading.
Between Christmas and New Year Three more calls from reporters wanting some facts and numbers (they didn’t think to look at the website) and one looking for a story idea as they were “low on news”.
A prominent community member passes away. Could the comms manager please pull together some bullet points for a eulogy?
New Year What could possibly go wrong? Keeping an eye on the council’s Facebook, the comms manager sees a question about the bad weather coming and some stormwater drains not being cleared.
Councilwatch* posts: “clear the drains yourself because the council is too bloody lazy”.
A slightly over-defensive council staff member responds to this, using their personal Facebook ID, inadvertently spiralling the conversation into the feral category.
Cue the following:
- Phone call to staff member who was “just trying to be helpful” – arrrgghhhh.
- Compose Facebook response.
- Call the stormwater manager.
- Post timeframe for action on Facebook and send out media advisory (the usual: tie down trampolines, check drains are clear, keep clear of flooded roads).
- Receive phone call from a councillor concerned that not enough is being done “to respond to negative comments”.
- Receive phone call from general manager, who the councillor had also called, asking, “what are you going to do about the bad stuff on Facebook?”
- Send advisory to elected members and the management team.
- Repeat original post on Facebook clearing up the confusion caused by misguided and unhelpful comments.
- Monitor and respond.
Early January The storm arrives. It’s not quite a Civil Defence situation but close. Then the call comes in: “we really need someone to coordinate our response and any public information”.
Over the next two days, the comms manager pulls together advice from council staff, responds to media enquiries (TV, radio and print), and sends updates to elected members. She takes photos and creates video, publishes information on Facebook, and puts out public notices and radio bulletins (through adverts and interviews).
She deals with NZTA, the power company, MPs, community volunteers and Hirepool. And she arranges food and hot drinks for a couple of staff who were out working through the night.
Like many other council staff – who have been clearing drains, disposing of waste, delivering clean drinking water, dealing to complaints, handing out advice, helping with transport and making sure people are safe – she put her own holiday on hold and just got on with the job.
That is what reputation management looks like.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of regular council Facebook posters, although you probably all know who they are.
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.