Just over a year ago, it was reported that CERA had a disproportionately high number of staff employed in communications – with 5.5% of total staff in a communications role, the next highest government department being just over 2%. Well, they obviously decided that wasn’t enough, and a year later, that figure is now around 7.3%. From the Press:
The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has almost doubled its communication budget and increased its public relations staff by a third in the past two years.
The big problem for CERA is that public trust in them as an organisation is close to zero. Instead of realising that this is a fundamental issue with the way they communicate, they’ve decided that it must be because they don’t communicate enough. More petrol on the fire, then. In the last year, we’ve had highlights such as the smartphone app that cost $80k to develop and was downloaded just over a thousand times. We also had the fantastic “Live Central” campaign, which encouraged rich white people to live in the CBD. It’d be interesting to know if they provided any advice to the PR shambles that was CEO Roger Sutton leaving.
But far more important than what the CERA comms team tells us is what they don’t. Their job is to manage the story, to ensure that the CERA version of events is the one that gets out.
The best way to ensure that they control the message is to say as little as possible. From time to time we hear stories about the number of communications and PR people employed for every journalist in the country. It’s worth thinking about that ratio in the context of the rebuild. CERA is a massive, political government department which has been placed (rightfully) in the city where it acts. Beyond the initial reporting of the disaster, there has been no increase in the resources dedicated to covering the rebuild. If anything, due to cut backs at the various media organisations, there are fewer journalists in the city than there were in 2011.
The media organisations in this city haven’t been able to increase their staffing to cover the increase in government activity post-quake. The Press, which Brownlee infamously called “the enemy of the rebuild”, has two reporters who cover the rebuild. They have some very good reporters on other beats which frequently overlap with what CERA does, such as the business and property sections. They also have some excellent feature writers, with articles from Philip Matthews and John McCrone often leading the debate on rebuild issues. Radio New Zealand has 4.5 reporters in the city, who are meant to cover everything that happens here – not just rebuild issues. Campbell Live was obviously a champion for the city, doing a lot of great reporting on the state of the rebuild, and they’re now gone. Aside from that, the TV networks don’t have the resources based here to do complex investigations.
I know that the journalists working in this city are doing their absolute best to get stories out. I also don’t doubt that the people who work in comms at CERA are good people, trying to do their best as well. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; CERA is one of the most powerful, least transparent government organisations New Zealand has seen in a generation. Like something from the Soviet Union, it is a command and control department; and also like our socialist brothers, command and control of the media message is a critical part of its ongoing success (while I’m riffing on the Marxist metaphor, Fiona Farrell talks about Brownleegrad in her recently released book).
The suppression of any genuine opposition to the government’s actions in Christchurch, despite the obvious failures in the CBD and out East, is remarkable political management. That the Message® about the recovery is so removed from the situation on the ground is victory for the comms department – Duncan Garner wrote about what he saw when he was down here last week, and he didn’t pull any punches. It’s not that these people are bad at their job; it’s that the job they are doing is actively misleading the people of Christchurch about the state of the city. That’s something we should all be alarmed about.