Communications clash – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Communications clash

Alberta’s recent branding exercise underscores the tensions and risks inherent in government communications today – tensions between the old and the new.

Background: the province recently spent more than a year and several million dollars to come up with a new brand to help the world focus on something – anything, other than birds dying in the tar sands. The result: Alberta: Freedom to Create, Spirit to Achieve.

First lesson of the digital age, according to some: way too long and cumbersome, especially in the age of twitter. What does it say about our attention spans today that six words is four words too many? In fairness, some folks (myself included) seem to like the slogan, viewing it as expansive and knowledge-driven. But in terms of catchy and concise, next to “Supernatural BC” what is one to do….

More revealing still is the picture and video campaign that accompanied the slogan. Among many other Albertan images, the usage of a lovely shot of children running on a beach stood out. The beach, it turns out, is to be found in the English region of Northumberland, where presumably the children cheerfully reside as well. A bit of online scrutiny, some uncomfortable queries of government authorities, one newspaper column later, and the story’s a scandal.  

Online, along with the video you can find the “mea culpa” of the public relations folks from the Alberta government. Then again, is an apology really in order? As they point out – as the Premier pointed out – the images were meant to place Alberta in a broader, global context. Surely the folks from Northumberland have not minded (alas the same cannot be said of those Albertan towns with lakefront beaches).

It’s even possible to conclude that through the lens of attention and buzz, the whole exercise has proven to be a phenomenal success – good bang for the buck! Except that quite a few bucks were spent, and one is left wondering whether this traditional messaging model – procuring professional services, striking advisory boards (internal and external), conducting focus groups, etc., is really still the best way to go.

Over at the CBC (no stranger to branding controversies), Hockey Night in Canada has taken a small step toward Web 2.0 innovation by allowing viewers to mash-up images and music with varied and in some cases very impressive results.

Which, then, will be the first province or city to toss out the traditional branding model in favour of a citizen-driven approach? From production through to final selection, it is arguable that government need only sit back and provide a bit of guidance and oversight, benefiting from the collective intelligence of society at large.

Yet, of course, there is an entire apparatus of government communications experts – and political handlers – standing in the way. While there surely remains a role for traditional communications functions, it may well be unwise to ask the same folks that have managed communications in a risk-averse and top-down manner to embrace the experimentalist and open principles of communications 2.0.

The stakes are much higher than jurisdictional branding. In a recent article in Government Technology Magazine, Jim Stanton quotes a NATO spokesman bemoaning the manner by which insurgent groups in Afghanistan are far more effective than the world’s largest and most sophisticated military alliance in making use of the Internet to spread images and messaging: “they are kicking our asses every single day in the media” was how it was not so eloquently put.

There is a similar schism at play for political parties that spend millions on glossy campaign manifestos, most often the product of a tight network of party leaders and consultants (influenced, ideally, and to varying degrees, by a dwindling grassroots membership). Which party will lead the way in devising policies in a genuinely open and participative manner (expanding membership via genuine empowerment)?

A new communications mindset is emerging across our digital landscape – one driven by open conversation and inclusion. Inside of government, those with power tend to view communications as a means to preserve it, containing information rather than sharing it. Plus, more mundane forms of resistance, as old habits die hard and all that….

Voila, the makings of a cultural clash that is just beginning to unfold.

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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