The most recent fiasco in the long-running saga of the trams in Adelaide (I won’t bore you with the details, save that they are too few and don’t seem to like rain) has brought me to the point of frustration.
There seem to be two issues here: one of ‘Responsibility’ and one of ‘Authority’ (classic management basics, one would think).
It seems that whenever anything out of the expected happens with the tram system some poor bugger gets unwillingly wheeled in front of a microphone to face an angry mob (of journalists).
Unsatisfied with the pat, dull, templated answers, the journos then go on to harangue the Minister for Transport who, like any politician would, ducks and dives and weaves and bobs to avoid looking like an untrustworthy fool (which, as any psychologist will tell you, is a damn near perfect way of actually looking like one).
The solution (apart from having more trams and having more reliable ones) is so blindingly obvious I wonder that no one has thought about it before.
To wit: pay a senior communicator to actually be on the ‘front foot’ with these issues. So that when something happens that affects service or customers in any way that communicator goes straight out to the media as quickly as possible to let them know that something is awry and solutions are being looked at.
First stop would be Matt and Dave on ABC Radio, then to the commercial radio stations, then to the tv stations. Whilst waiting to get onto Matt and Dave the ‘front foot’ communicator would be organising changes to the front page of the Transport website so that commuters and other interested parties can go there and be updated. He/she would also be ensuring that text messages were being sent out to all interested parties that had signed up to be notified about changes to services.
That senior communicator would regularly ‘push’ the work and results of the transport system to the media, rather than waiting for the media to come to them. They would also build up a level of trust with the media (and as a flow-on effect, the public, who take their viewpoints largely from how the media portrays the issue) by being consistent. Thus, if something is broken they admit it is broken, up front, honest, and not look like they are trying to hide behind the Minister’s trouser leg or Mummy’s skirt.
That communicator would be the regular, public face of the department or group; they would have to be honest but over time that honesty would work in their favour because, unlike politicians*, they can be shown to be trustworthy and not snake-like of appearance.
The flow-on goodness of this is that the department’s employees would not feel so embarrassed to say where they work.
Now, for this to work the communicator would need not just the above ‘responsibility’, but also the ‘authority’ to do the job.
That is, they must, at an absolute minimum, have the following:
- complete, unfettered access to the Minister at all times (“I don’t care if the Minister is in a meeting, he will want to speak with me NOW!”)
- complete, unfettered access to their Chief Executive and the CE’s leadership team at all times (“I don’t care if the CFO is in the loo, she will want to speak with me NOW!”)
- complete authority to change any wording on their website at a moment’s notice, and have those changes enacted within five minutes
- complete authority to demand changes to any of the Legal Department’s obtuse language so that Joe Public can actually comprehend and understand it
- complete freedom to engage with the media (which includes citizen media) however, where ever and whenever they see fit, in order to bring about a more positive view of the department amongst the state’s citizenry
- a salary worthy of the responsibility (which, SA Govt, means slightly above the $45k a year you expect some of your communicators to work for)
This model of ‘front footed’ public (including media) communication is adaptable to any circumstance — be it a tram system that is having hiccups, to installing a power grid across wilderness regions. By getting ‘out there’ and ‘amongst it’ earlier, you reduce the risk of an angry media baying for the blood of your Minister later.
* Senator-elect Nick Xenaphon totally excluded from this motley bunch of ne’er-do-wells