By Trevor Busch
Addressing challenges that can arise through a modern media relationship, the Town of Taber has adopted a new media relations policy that outlines boundaries for spokespersons and designates penalties for administration or council members who may be found in breach.
The town’s old policy had not been updated since 1991, and was in need of a number of changes to reflect the current media landscape and the town’s processes regarding their relationship with the media. Administration was asking council to repeal the old policy in order to replace it with the modernized version.
“Our previous media policy is slightly outdated, and a few things have changed in the media since 1991,” said communications co-ordinator Meghan Brennan at town council’s Dec. 16 meeting. “So we’ve crafted a new policy and procedure, and it is basically what we do now with our media, but it makes it clear for council and administration, as well as our boards, committees and commissions.”
Administration reviewed the communications and media policies of seven other Canadian municipalities in formulating their own updated policy, including the County of Grande Prairie, County of Lethbridge, Strathcona County, City of Calgary, City of Pitt Meadows, City of Hamilton, and the City of Guelph.
“The Town of Taber recognizes that building trust and mutually beneficial relationships with the media is a necessary link to fostering precise, balanced, and fair reporting and to allow the town to convey key information and protect and enhance the town’s reputation,” reads a statement in the policy.
As part of its policy statement, the town will “strive to work collaboratively with all media companies and personnel to foster an open and honest relationship.”
For requests regarding council or council decisions, the mayor has been designated as the point of contact, unless otherwise designated by a resolution or bylaw under Council Code of Conduct Bylaw 1-2018, Sec. 15.
For requests of administration, the CAO is the designated point of contact, or a list of designated spokespersons. For boards, commissions, or committees, the chair serves the same role.
Exceptions to this, regarding issues that concern administration but that council may wish to speak to, can include CUPE agreements or negotiations, budget information, personnel issues, and criminal or unethical behaviour involving any members of council, administration, boards, commissions or committees.
Sec. 9 of the Policy Statement prohibits town employees from speaking to the media except under specific circumstances.
“Employees of the Town of Taber shall not speak on matters in relation to Town of Taber business to media personnel unless given express permission by the Chief Administrative Officer, or they are a designated spokesperson as outlined within the corresponding procedure.”
Those who are not designated spokespersons of the municipality or its official organizations “have the right to speak to the media as private individuals, but must not speak on behalf of the municipality or provide information they are not authorized to disclose on the municipality’s behalf.”
Under the policy, when media requests for elected officials are made through administration, elected officials are required to respond back to staff within 24 hours.
“Where possible, elected officials should make every effort to respond to media requests as soon as feasible to allow for media to prepare interviews and materials prior to their deadlines (Policy Statement, Sec. 10 A). Designated spokespersons will make every attempt to provide the requested information or grant an interview in a timely manner in order to respect media deadlines, whenever possible (Policy Statement, Sec. 11).”
Tough regulations also govern the release of specific information to the public, while regulating the treatment of media personnel by administration and council.
“No spokesperson, Administrative Staff, or committee member shall provide information to the media ‘off the record,’ or without prior consent from either the Mayor (or designate) or the Chief Administrative Officer (or designate) for information that has not yet been publicly shared by the municipality or is not allowed to be disclosed (Policy Statement, Sec. 13). No spokesperson or otherwise shall ever release any information to the media that is protected by federal, provincial, or municipal laws (Policy Statement, Sec. 14) Media personnel shall always be treated with courtesy and respect by all members of Town of Taber Council, Administration, and members of Town boards, committees, and commissions (Policy Statement, Sec. 15).”
Exceptions to the policy include the Taber Police Service (their own policies and procedures take precedence), the Taber Municipal Police Commission (their own policies and procedures take precedence), activation of the Emergency Operations Centre of the Town of Taber (in the case of activation, the Emergency Response Plan and any actions prescribed there take precedence), activation of a State of Local Emergency, and “any information that the Town of Taber is not authorized to disclose under the FOIPP Act or any other acts that prohibit the release of information due to privacy or legal concerns.”
Under Operating Guidelines Sec. 2, A-E, of the town’s Media Relations Procedure “all media personnel shall be treated with respect and professionalism at all times” while “media personnel shall never be disparaged by any member of council, administration, or town boards either publicly or privately.” Media personnel or representatives should never be “willfully ignored, dismissed or disregarded” and the information provided to media personnel should always be “factual, and shall never serve to willfully mislead media or to damage the reputation of the Town of Taber, its council, administration, or members of official committees or outside organizations and committees they have requested to be involved with.”
Designated spokespersons are required to “comment on and disclose only information which pertains to their organization, project, or the topic at hand, and that which is able to be publicly disclosed” and to “refrain from discussing any issues that do not pertain to their authorized area of dialogue.”
Regarding the sharing of information, the procedure mandates the town to “strive to provide transparency to the media by providing access to information as often as possible.”
In addressing media relations concerns, the procedure also details that “spokespersons must never treat media personnel with anything other than professionalism” while outlining procedures to effectively address situations where media personnel may have behaved in an “abusive, threatening or harmful manner.” According to the same procedure, media personnel asking difficult or complicated questions, or asking about matters that are controversial or contentious, does not constitute abusive behaviour.
“The media are responsible for asking tough questions, and the Town of Taber as a public body is responsible for providing transparency to the public,” reads a statement in the procedure. “Spokespersons will respect the role of the media in this regard and attempt to answer the questions with facts and respect.”
The procedure also allows spokespersons to decline media requests under a detailed list of acceptable reasons, while breaches of the policy on the part of administration and council are subject to a number of disciplinary actions, including the possibility of dismissal for staff or actions taken through the Council Code of Conduct Bylaw regarding council.
Similar actions may apply to any representatives on town boards, committees, or commissions who have been found to have “willfully breached” the policy and procedure.
“I read that (policy and procedure), I think it’s great,” said Coun. Louie Tams.
Council voted unanimously to adopt as presented Media Relations Policy ADM-11.