Several weeks ago, St. John's Mayor Andy Wells stirred up a mini-controversy when he said the city didn't need a public relations person on staff, that citizens were well informed on council news.
His comments caused some consternation among my colleagues in the public relations field. And since public relations go hand-in-hand with media, I felt this would make good grist for a column. I decided to weigh in and offer a spirited, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, defence of the public relations field. An interview with the irascible Mayor Wells was requested and granted.
Q: So how did this public relations issue first arise?
A: Councillor Hickman suggested that the city’s message is not getting out there somehow and that we need a public relations person to convey the message, whatever the ‘message’ is. First of all, I think it would be a complete waste of money. There are 10 councillors and a mayor, and we’re all supposed to pontificate, articulate or whatever on municipal issues. I certainly wouldn’t want a public relations person in my office, and I don’t need it. It’s part of my responsibilities. Whether I do it effectively or not is another issue. But I don’t think in principle it’s necessary. It’s absolutely out of the question as far as I’m concerned.
Q: But in that case, you are getting 10 different points of view out there…
A: Well, this is not a cabinet… All members of council are entitled to hold their opinions. So municipal politics by its very nature is going to be more fractious. I mean, half of this council hates me. Well they don’t HATE me… well, yeah, some of them probably do… And that’s the nature of politics. That’s not going to change, especially for someone like me who calls it like I see it. The people of St. John’s are entitled to an honest opinion and whether they accept that opinion or agree with it is something I can’t do anything about. I am not in the business of manipulation.
Q: It would seem though, that once a majority of council votes and the city has a position on something, would it make sense to have a person who helps communicate that position? Not on the councillors behalf, but on the city’s behalf.
A: That’s the job of those of us who support that position, or of myself, as mayor. It takes six to make a decison of council, and that’s six PR people… the most important of them being the office of mayor. And I don’t agree with Mr. Hickman at all that we aren’t getting our message out…
Q: What is your opinion overall of public relations people?
A: Oh, I can understand companies having PR positions. But I tend to look at some of these provincial and federal politicians and their entourages, and I think a lot of it is a big waste of taxpayers’ money. Look, if a private company wants to have a PR department that’s entirely their own business. But in the public sector, when it comes to taxpayers’ dollars, I think far too much money is wasted on executive assistants, public relations officers, communications officers, and the like. It seems to me that if you hold elected office, it’s your responsibility to communicate whatever is necessary.
Q: Do you think it’s a PR person’s job to stall information and frustrate reporters?
A: It depends on who they’re working for. In politics, quite often the PR person is simply the propaganda person to try and obfuscate and ensure that the proper spin is put on everything, to enhance the good news and mitigate the bad news… not to tell it like it is.
Q: One of the golden rules is that you will win more people over through niceness than through belligerence. You have been belligerent, and you have insulted people…
A: No, I don’t think that’s a fair statement. Who have I insulted?
Q: I have heard you call people stupid, ignorant, those kinds of things… calling into question their intellect or integrity.
A: Politics is a pretty vicious game. And you are dealing with a lot of people who are not in it for any public interest.
Q: So when you hurl insults, it is mainly at fellow politicians?
A: Well, when people make statements that are incorrect, erroneous or false, why shouldn’t they be taken to task? Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. But I get sick and tired of dealing with people who engage in constant manipulation, where every issue is used to maximize political self-interest.
Q: So sometimes you will go over the top to smash through that kind of thing?
A: Well, whatever. I upset people. But people also know that they can get a straight answer. You can trust me boy. You might not like the answer, but you will get the truth. I campaigned on that.
Q: It occurs to me that if you ever did have a full-time PR person, one of the first things they would do is tell you to tone down the behaviour, to not be so aggressive. What would you say to that?
A: I would say that I don’t need a PR person. Politics is a blood sport. Grimes and Williams are going at it every day in the House of Assembly. They’re not particularly nice to each other. Opposition MHAs are going after Cabinet ministers. And this council… this council is the most dysfunctional group that I’ve ever dealt with. We’re going to have disagreements. And that’s not gonna change. That’s part of human nature. It’s always a struggle to make sure the right thing gets done, the right information gets out and people are not manipulated or pandered to. I don’t pander to people either. The easiest thing in the world is to tell people exactly what they want to hear.
Q: So you don’t see any value in having communications help with the ongoing council issues? You’re satisfied with how the message is conveyed right now?
A: We have public meetings that are televised. There is debate and discussion there. We have a web site. We now have the 754-CITY number for the Citizens’ Service Centre. If you have any kind of question concerning anything to do with City Hall, you dial 754-CITY and you’ll talk to a live human being who will assist you…
Q: Do you think a PR person might help you use these communications tools more effectively?
A: For what?
Q: The web site… The newspaper advertising… The ads in the paper are solid masses of text, not very inviting.
A: But those are for tenders, vacancies, and general information. They are not propaganda.
Q: But that is my point. A PR person can help with ‘real information’. It isn’t all propaganda!
A: How could he or she help?
Q: Ways to make information better understood, easier to consume…
A: But there’s nothing to it. It’s just ads… a tender for construction of a bridge, a vacancy in the engineering department, a public hearing on a zoning application. It’s just straightforward information. So you’re not going to get the job!
Q: I don’t want the job!