Open communication

It is natural organisations want to control news about themselves.

They want "good news" to spread and bad news to remain as hidden as possible. No-one wants their dirty linen flapping in the breeze.

Thus, public relations firms and communications specialists are paid to develop strategies and to help massage and control information. Of course, it pays to be upfront and open because the consequences of not doing so could well be much worse publicity.

Often, public relations advisers will, sensibly, advise openness, recognising the longer-term benefits. But no-one should be fooled into thinking that they are operating for wider altruistic reasons.

They are serving their clients or bosses.

In an effective democracy, and particularly when public money at stake, however, transparency should be fundamental. Not only does this diminish the opportunity for the cancer of corruption, but it also - as noted last week by the Law Commission in its report on the Official Information Act - promotes accountability.

Inefficiency is more likely to be found out. Alternative viewpoints can be aired.

There are concerning signs with one of the South's biggest organisations, the Southern District Health Board. It has gone the way of much of government and increased its "communications" resources, at first glance an aid to inquiry. But as experienced reporters doing regular fundamental work can attest, such teams might claim to "facilitate" communications where often they and their policies become a barrier blocking direct access to relevant staff. In the board's case, a media policy was developed. Under its purpose, it says the policy is to help ensure the media receive information that, among other goals, is "timely".

The communications team also "facilitates" media inquiries. But the policy then says all responses and/or spokespeople will be approved by the chief executive. Unless approval is specifically granted by the chief executive, employees may not make statements to the media on board-related matters.

So, even the most senior executives are not trusted to speak to the media without tight controls.

While there is a "clinical obligations" exception, this is also strictly circumscribed. To be fair, there is also a place for "expert comment" in a personal capacity where comments do not have to be approved by the communications team. The word "timely" in relation to responses again arises.

That, under tight restrictions, can be preposterous.

The board's recent internal "Communications Strategy and Framework" contains similar double-think. There are claims about the need to ensure "we are transparent", and about recognising the public has a keen and legitimate interest in the running of the board. "This strategy," we are told, "will help the DHB to foster open, honest and transparent two-way communication with the community, our staff, stakeholders, Government and the media". Although there seems a desire for improving communication, the new policy will make this more difficult. The desire to minimise the risk of the wrong things being said or written stifles the likelihood of positive messages and good-news stories.

The latest public's-right-to-know issue arose on Wednesday at the hospital advisory committee, where concern was raised that financial matters were so complicated they risked confusing the public. Hopefully, this was not being used as an excuse to suppress information until closed meetings. The board is not alone in endeavouring to manage closely information about itself. The University of Otago - apart from academic opinions - can be close to obsessive in its desire to regulate information, mindful in part because of the competitive market for students. What should be recognised, though, is that they both spend vast sums of public money.

They should be more open.

At the same time, the public needs to understand issues and problems will arise in such large and complex organisations and a mixed-bag of news is to be expected. That should be the nature of democracy. And because of that, "good news" should carry more credibility. But for the health board in particular, as a public body which intimately affects the lives of many citizens, communication should not be run along the lines of a business corporation.

 

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