Policy for communications set to mould city message

Creation of a city communications policy and a code of conduct for council created confusion amongst some councillors.

The City Communications Policy — as presented to council by the Ginger Lester, city communications coordinator, last month — is expected to govern how the city communicates with the public about policies, program, services and initiatives.

“The policy aims to ensure that communications within and across departments are well coordinated and integrated into all city operations,” she said in her report to council at the last meeting of council (Oct. 25).

“Communications is a shared responsibility that requires the collaboration, support and cooperation of all departments and staff.”

But there was some confusing cross-over between the policy and the developing council code of conduct, said Coun. Keith Page. He wondered if the council component of the policy should be stripped and dove-tailed into the code of conduct instead.

“Because it does seem to be an ill fit for me to try and capture both council communications … as well as staff expectations and staff communications,” he said. “I thought it made the document less clear and led to some awkward language and phrasings.

There was some discussion about separating council from city staff in the policy, said Sarah Winton, the city’s corporate officer, but ultimately it was decide that the terms of the council code of conduct were separate from the intent of the communications policy.

“This (policy) provides some guidance for staff and the expectation from council, how everyone would behave around communications,” she said.

The council code of conduct is about council’s behaviour in decision making, she added. It incorporates a much broader way of behaving and expectations that council will have for one another.

“It holds each other accountable to those expectations,” she said. “They are two separate things … the incoming council will be required to address it and everyone on that council will add to it and build it.”

However, Page reiterated about streamlining the language of the policy.

“Because there’s a lot of language in here that talks about different kinds of people and how they are affected … and you end up with a document that is very hard to read,” he said.

“The thing to keep in mind is this is an expectation for the organization,” Winton replied. “And council is part of the organization, so we all need to keep these rules and this guidance in mind when you are communicating.”

Lester said the prescriptive part of the policy is in the communications procedures.

“It does provide guidance for our staff, of which there is none at the moment,” she said. “This formalizes it and gives them help in the work that they are doing.”

City manager Kevin Cormack said city staff felt the policy was a much stronger step forward than the city currently possessed.

“But it is changeable if we find it a bit awkward,” he said.

“We need to get something in place to provide a foundation. It will just add to the work we are doing,” Lester added. “We are already seeing better branding and consistency in everything we do.”

The motion to accept the policy passed in council, with Page opposed.

Broad strokes

The policy provides a “big picture framework” for communications and includes an administrative procedures addendum that guides implementation of the policy.

The policy also provides more detailed guidance on certain communications aspects such as public relations, media relations, advertising and promotions, internet presence, social media, emergency and crisis communications, corporate representation, public statements, employee communications and public engagement.

The procedures addendum also includes logo use and brand guidelines, communications planning guide and checklist and a communications workflow.

The employee email signature block policy standardizes one element of city communications: the email signature block.

“Email is one of the most widely used forms of communicating at the city,” noted Winton in the report to council.

Different employees and departments across the city utilize various signature block styles and formats, she explained.

“Introducing the email signature block policy along with instruction and guidance to staff should help the organization achieve a consistent signature block,” said Winton.

Source: City of Nelson agenda

Delving into the policy

The 15-page policy document contains many sections on subjects such as internet presence, advertising and promotions, media relations and social media (below):

Personal use of Social Media by City employees 5.5.23 The City respects the rights of employees who choose to post, comment or otherwise use social media communications.

5.5.24 Individuals are encouraged to use social media to be informed about the City and issues that may affect our programs and services. Employees' personal social media accounts are understood to be vehicles for their right to free speech as private citizens.

5.5.25 At the same time, if it is reasonable that an individual could be identified as a City employee, then their comments must accurately reflect the decisions of Council and positions of administration; comments cannot be contrary to City positions and must not discuss the opinions or positions of elected officials.

5.5.26 Employees should be cautious about providing information about the City to avoid being perceived as the spokesperson for the City.

5.5.27 Personal social media communication with members of the public in any forum that encourages respectful dialogue on relevant municipal issues is permitted, provided it is factual, appropriate and does not conflict with Council direction and the City's other obligations, such as protecting the privacy and maintaining confidentiality, and a respectful workplace.

5.5.28 Employees are accountable for their personal use of social media in the same way they are accountable for other off-duty conduct. Posts to personal accounts must not undermine the City's objectives or relationships with its partners or engage in public criticism in a way that is detrimental to the City's legitimate business interests or reputation.

Source: Communications Policy, City of Nelson

Timothy Schafer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nelson Daily