Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Truth or spin?

Truth or spin? Featured Image

We are brokers of the truth – not brokers of good news. Elizabeth Hughes’ continuing series on Local Government 101.

The line printed above is one of the commandments that communication professionals live by. In my experience, it’s possible that some local government managers / executives misunderstand, and therefore unintentionally misdirect, this particular capability of their communication professional.

This happens partly because (a) when things go wrong they usually go publicly wrong – and annoying tasks like ‘dealing with the media’ and ‘improving public perception’ are considered the job of the communication person. And (b) everyone knows that communication people are really only there to make you look good – so clearly it’s totally their job to fix things when (a) has happened.

Examples of where managers / executives might misunderstand their communication professional’s capability, and therefore unintentionally misdirect, sound like this:

  • write a letter to the editor for tomorrow’s edition that puts our side of the story
  • the locals are complaining they weren’t informed about the work in their street. I need you to do a brochure to go in letterboxes that explains it (today if possible)
  • the media should not be asking about that. Tell them to go away
  • that can’t go on our Facebook page. People might say negative things about it
  • don’t send a letter apologising to anyone who fell into the open drain – otherwise it will look like we’re accepting liability
  • produce a media release on (some great thing). But don’t mention the negative stuff
  • no you can’t do a media advisory saying 
“we don’t have all the details around that incident at this stage so will update you in one hour”. It will sound like we don’t know what we’re doing.

When you ask your communication person to do, or not to do, these things don’t be surprised if they just look at you and sigh.

A particular favourite is where a project is not going well, or is failing to achieve its target, and the manager visits the communication person a nano-second before the proverbial hits the fan and asks for some help. “I know I probably should have talked to you about this earlier but…”

What these managers / executives are asking for is reactive or ‘spun’ communication. They’re asking their communication professional to broker good news rather than broker the truth.

Sometimes things do go wrong and are messy. This is understood and part of the complexities of local government. We all know that the very worst way to deal with things at times like this is to avoid, deflect or ‘spin’.

The quickest and cleanest way to solve controversy or deal with a mistake is to expose the truth and find a way to reduce the damage to everyone involved.

As the champions of reputation – which is based on trust and consistency – the communication professional will know how to do this. They will have well-established relationships with the media and stakeholders – built on their own professional reputation – and will have processes that can be activated to address the issue.

Communication professionals need two things to enable them to support your project, service or activity with excellence:

  • tell them early (before anything is potentially in a public arena – this includes the council chamber)
  • give them the entire truth (including all the real or potential bad truths).

They can deal with your spectacular failures (and even broker ‘good news’) if they have access to these two things, and then you listen to their advice.

Just to be clear. The communication professional doesn’t want the whole truth in anticipation of disclosing it. They need the whole truth so they can devise the right strategy or approach to advise you on. Without the whole truth they can’t possibly give you the correct advice nor can they mitigate against future risks.

Note: none of this means your communication professional cannot do a beautifully crafted ‘fix’ when needed. Just don’t expect them to be your Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel, Pulp Fiction) every day.

Elizabeth Hughes runs her own business, Elizabeth Hughes Communication. www.elizabethhughes.co.nz

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

Previous articles by Elizabeth Hughes: Working with the media. So you want to be a councillor?

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