Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall's got a PR problem

And it's looking for a few good communications consultants to change that

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Winnipeg city hall has issued a formal search for communications consultants.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Winnipeg city hall has issued a formal search for communications consultants. Photo Store

This may come as a shock, but the City of Winnipeg could use some help with public relations.

This is not a joke. The city has issued a formal search for communications consultants to help out in situations too big, too complex or simply too crazy for the city's communications staff, who number in the single digits and struggle to keep up with their workload.

In other Canadian cities of a comparable size, it's not uncommon to find dozens of communications professionals working on everything from strategy to public consultation to good old-fashioned spin for multiple municipal departments.

Winnipeg has only five or six of these flacks to serve the entire city. None of them is gifted with the supernatural ability to hold more than one telephone conversation or exist in multiple locations simultaneously.

Winnipeg could have used paranormal public relations professionals this winter, which will go down as the most challenging for the city since 1996-97. That was the one with three blizzards followed by a flood.

This winter will be remembered fondly for the frequent southern excursions of the circumpolar vortex -- which is a scientific way of saying it was horribly, brutally and uncomfortably cold, even for a city that loves to brag about its ability to withstand anything.

Early in the winter, city officials struggled to explain why snow-clearing crews weren't clearing snow, why garbage-collection contractors weren't collecting garbage and why many water mains were mainly spewing water instead of carrying it into homes and businesses.

Then came the plague of frozen water pipes, which an angry, vengeful god must have visited upon the city for worshipping some bearded entity other than Randy Bachman.

To many citizens, including plenty who never pay attention to municipal politics, the City of Winnipeg simply hasn't been takin' care of business.

Logically, no sane individual would blame politicians or public servants for the weather, one thing no human, however powerful, can control.

But in the wake of a series of capital-procurement scandals -- you know, that fire-paramedic station built on private land, and that police headquarters renovation that costs as much as a brand-new football stadium -- many Winnipeggers simply do not trust their city or any of the people responsible for running it.

When it comes to maintaining public trust, Winnipeg is well past the tipping point where residents merely have a healthy skepticism about municipal government.

There are Winnipeggers who no longer believe the city can do anything without screwing up -- and that's a major problem.

Some members of city council understand they've lost the public. Others are wandering around blaming the media for exaggerating the severity of the situation.

While that's ridiculous, it does place a priority on the search for some form of help in conveying information and maybe managing public expectations about what the city can and cannot do in a crisis situation that isn't an actual disaster such as a blizzard or a flood.

The request for qualifications posted on the city's website states Winnipeg is looking for communications consultants to help out "on an 'as required' basis, where and when available."

These people will not be answering email. They're being asked to "provide issues management and media-relations advice" to corporate communications manager Steve West, the city's chief spokesman.

West said the external consultants will be used to bolster his public relations office, which he declined to characterize as too small for the city.

"It's really a matter of adding capacity on a temporary basis," he said in an interview.

What that means is the city is not going out and hiring a bunch of flacks at $80,000 a year on a full-time, permanent basis. But it is prepared to spend money when its puny PR staff is swimming hopelessly against a tide of reporters demanding answers on behalf of a legitimately angry populace.

What remains unclear is whether that public will be motivated to do something at the polls this fall. The combination of brown water, spilled water and no water could usher in a flood of political change.

Even the circumspect Steve West acknowledges what's at stake.

"City services are the services citizens access every day of the week. The city is pretty close to people's attention on any given day, whether they're putting out garbage or driving on roads or calling for assistance," he said.

The search for professional communications help closes April 17.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 B2

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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