Kelowna city hall defends the size of its communications department

City hall has 11 people making sure the public knows what is happening with the municipality.

When you are in the business of running a city that spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year of taxpayers’ money, communication with the public is vital.

And in today’s interconnected world, that communication can’t be one-way.

So while some may balk at the city communications department at Kelowna City Hall filling another position in a staff that now numbers 11, city officials have no problem justifying the number and explain how, and why, it has grown as large as it has in recent years.

“It’s about consolidation,” said city manager Ron Mattiussi.

Saying all the communications positions the city now has existed prior to the 2012 consolidation of the department, Mattiussi said they were more department-specific, and in some cases were not even considered true communications positions.

Members of the recreation department, for instance, put out brochures about programs at the Parkinson Recreation Centre, members of the environment division write up news releases about city programs, roads staff produce releases about projects and city staff arrange open houses to gather public input.

The city is currently looking to fill a communications department position that will have the successful candidate working with the mayor, council and city manager.

Mattiussi said it is not a new position, just one that has been vacant for some time.

He said because it is an “exempt” position—not represented by the union that represents Kelowna city workers—it had to be posted.

Overseeing that communication department is Carla Weaden, divisional director of communications and information services.

Weaden said of the 11 staff in her department, two are contract positions.

“I think there was a feeling in the past that all we did was put out pretty brochures,” said Weaden. “But that’s not the case.”

In addition to the news releases, her department also still puts out those “pretty brochures,” but it is also responsible for research that is often used for the content of city reports and used by planners.

They organize and host open houses and other civic events aimed at gathering public input.

The city has an extensive website that includes the ability for the public to not only report issues but receive information back from the appropriate department, it deals with the annual citizens’ survey and other surveys the city puts out.

It designated a specific person to liaise with area business and the contractor doing the recent Bernard Avenue project (a contract position) and it handles media requests.

Following the 2012 reorganization of the communication department, when the city, mindful of its responsibility to not only tell city residents what was happening but also hear from residents about what they thought, hired a consultant to look at what other municipalities were doing. Everything from news releases, to research, from event and open house planning to public engagement was handed over to the new department.

One of the people contacted by the consultant at the time, was the man in charge of Fort McMurray’s communications department, Philip Cooper.

Cooper, now the manager of communication for the City of Nanaimo, said it was clear Kelowna was looking to centralize its system, where by the communications department would “own” all of the work the city needed to do.

As a comparison, he said Fort McMurray, with about 100,000 residents, has a communications department of about 20 people.

Back in B.C., a quick check with other similar-sized municipalities shows a wide variety of numbers. In Victoria, (population 90,000) there are seven people, including the manager in the department of public engagement. In Coquitlam (population 114,000) the department is broken up into a number of separate areas with a total of 11 people. In Richmond (population 205,000), there are four people but many of the individual departments have staff who handle specific departmental communications. In Nanaimo, there are three full-time communications department employees but like Richmond, other departments there have people handling departmental communications and the overall number is likely closer to Kelowna’s.

Cooper said while he did not think 11 people in a department for a city the size of Kelonwa (population 122,000) was excessive, he said in other cities, such as his the overall number of “official” communication department workers may be smaller but the work is augmented by the departmental officials handling their own communications.

For Weaden, one of the advantages to the way Kelonwa now does it is that she can move communicators around from project to project, without having them confined to only single departmental issues.

At Kelowna city hall, the communications department is divided into three groups, said Mattiussi, one that generally handles internal communications, another that deals with community engagement and a third that deals with “new” media, such as the city’s website, social media and other online channels. The last one is the fastest emerging area for the communications department and Weaden said the city now sees three distinct sets of constituents it must engage, all of whom get and consume their information differently.

For those under 20, middle-aged residents and seniors over 65, the chosen methods of getting what they want from the city and relating their views back may be different but there is one constant — making yourself heard and hearing back are still critical. So one approach only does not work.

Where the city used to simply put up a sign on a piece of property that was being considered for a rezoning and development, now there are website entries, videos, newspaper advertising, social media interactions and email information.

In fact, the city’s email service, in which the public can have information sent straight to their in-boxes now has a subscriber base of more than 10,000.

“Traditional media is still a very important way to get your message out,” said Weaden, “but there are plenty of other ways to do it.”

She said the decision by the city to select one newspaper to contract with for its non-statutory advertising (currently the Kelowna Capital News) saved the city more than $200,000 in advertising costs.

She said the decision was made, in part, based on research her staff did about where the public gets, and wants to get, its information about the city.

 

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