Friday, June 7, 2013

No accountability = no trust ... the challenge for Public Information Officers

My good friend James Garrow published another great blog post today on the ongoing scandal about widespread spying on Americans by their own government. A state that is reading their emails, listening to their cell phones and much more. Here's an excerpt from Jim's post: 

Nsa-surveillance-programWhat do we do when we have no trust left? This is not your fault, or my fault. (I check the logs, no one from the White House or Congress reads this blog. Hi NSA!) But we are the ones that have to deal with the fallout. We’re the ones who shout life-saving advice and recommendations into the ether, with nothing more than the cloak of, “they do this job because they are true believers; it’s certainly not for the money,” to protect us from the liars, the sycophants, the paranoid and the deniers. What do we do when that last shred of trust is gone?
By the way, Canada (thought the Communications Security Establishment), the UK via the GCHQ, also do the same. Big Brother IS watching.

Let's leave that aside. The purpose of this post is to talk about the growing mistrust in government by the public and what this means for those of us who have to communicate with audiences during a disaster. How can you do this effectively when the entity you represent lacks credibility? 

In broad terms, the public see all levels of government as a monolith ... one big organization ... "the man". For us to be effective communicators in a crisis, we must rely on a sense of trust and credibility. Unfortunately, that is slowly being eroded in our public space.

Just take a look at what's happening where I live. I reside in a suburb of Canada's largest city. A city headed by a mayor who reportedly smokes crack, whose principal adviser is his brother who's been accused of dealing drugs ... A chief magistrate who's been allegedly caught in a video smoking crack ... and with stories linking that video to a murder, gun play, assaults, more drug dealing and untimely accidents (falls from balconies ???). See a previous blog post on this whole story.

The craziest thing about this Borgias-like story is that the Mayor is still in office, pretending that it's business as usual and not answering any questions about this sordid affair. He won't talk about the issue .... won't step aside or seek help. So there is NO ACCOUNTABILITY ... meaning there is NO CREDIBILITY and therefore NO TRUST. That's at the municipal level.

Now, we move up a level ... in the last election, the ruling party unilaterally cancelled the construction of power plants not too far from my home. An obvious ploy to try to keep seats ... That's fine, electors expect that sort of tactics. What's not resonating well though is the sustained lies that followed about the actual costs of the contract cancellations. Now it appears they are at least 10 times the amount initially disclosed.

This lack of openness and transparency certainly didn't build any further trust in the government from the public. Now it's even worse: a report by the officer responsible for privacy and freedom of information reveals there was widespread destruction of emails and the police is now investigating to determine if criminal charges should be laid.

Notwithstanding the result of the police investigation, there has been no retribution for the staffers who deleted public records ... and the senior elected officials involved are still around ...Again, NO ACCOUNTABILITY ... means NO TRUST ... where are the good ol' days where the mere whiff of impropriety meant the "honourable member" would resign? 

Now, let's look at the ultimate level ... scandal and lack of openness and transparency permeates everything in Ottawa too. It begins with the Senate expenses scandals where senators appointed by our Prime Minister claimed expenses they were not entitled too. The lack of willingness to address the issue head on and the efforts to divert Canadians attention seem to be failing. The top guy is losing a lot of support ... not sure how long electors will remember the scandals but the objective seems to be to wait it out.

In the wake of all this, even the Prime Minister's supporters are starting to wonder about the rigid approach of his office and the lack of transparency. This sad episode even led to that same government MP leaving the party caucus.

Even worse. though, is the federal government's ongoing warfare against its own scientists who question the Tories policies on food inspection, climate change and a host of issues. Again, adding to the general mistrust towards politicians and the government as a whole.

Again the equation is quite frightening for those who need to reach out to the public in emergencies ... our very position is being undermined. 


Will people listen to us when their actions based upon our recommendations might save their lives?

Need another illustration? ... A very symbolic one that shows the blurring of the line between partisan politics and purely governmental work ... the Royal Canadian Air Force plane used to transport the Primer Minister got a new paint job. It went from a gun-metal livery ...

Pimp my plane: Prime minister's jet goes from gunmetal to red, white and blueTo this new colour scheme ... much to the dismay of most observers and professional military officers and defense staff ...

This scheme just so happens to reflect the colours of the ruling party ... just another coincidence say the people in charge ... a story that few believe.

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