Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Communications teams in a democracy

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Communications teams in a democracy

There’s been debate recently about the role of government communications teams in a democracy.

It started with an opinion piece written by the Dominion Post’s editor Anna Fifield with the title When did our public service get so arrogant? Having spent 20 years working overseas she expressed her shock at how “obstructive and deliberately untransparent our public service has become”. She went on to lament the growth of communications staff in government departments whom she cites as a block between journalists and subject matter experts who would be able to answer questions, provide background and explain Government policy.

This wasn’t her only area of concern but it was the one that former public relations consultant, Tracey Bridges focused on in her response, published by the Dominon Post, under the headline How do we make our public service more responsive? She argued that communications teams do far more than just respond to the media that they serve the public more widely through other tools such as websites, social media content, speeches and replying to parliamentary questions as well as internal communications for departmental staff.

The core function of the public service lies in its name. It is a service to serve the public. And public sector communications staff, like other public servants, are there for that purpose too. Yes, they are working for the Government of the day, but let’s remember that they, our elected representatives, are also there to serve the public.

I, like many others I’m sure, have listened in despair recently to the number of times the media reports that such and such government department refused to comment, did not respond by deadline, or refused to talk to a media outlet and instead issued a written statement.

Have they all collectively forgotten their purpose and that we live in a democracy? The media is a crucial arm of an effective democracy just as an open and transparent public service is. The media represents the public by asking the questions that need and should be asked and the public service and our elected officials should answer them.

When I began my communications career 30 years ago that was the role of a communications team. We were a conduit between the two parties. The idea was to make the interaction easier for both parties. Our role was to ensure spokespeople were the subject matter experts that the journalist needed, and that they were prepared and had information on hand so they could answer questions. We would facilitate off-the-record, or background conversations so that complex issues would be better understood. The relationships were collegial, professional, and at times even friendly.

Sometimes these interactions were easier than others. Some issues are more challenging than others, particularly when there has been a failure that has led to what could and should have been preventable incidents. But that didn’t mean that departments could hide behind not being available for an interview or asking that questions be put into an Official Information Act request. The public has a right to know what happened, why and what’s going to stop it from happening again.

So it begs the question why and how has this happened? There is truth in both Fifield and Bridges’ arguments. There can be no doubt that the media has weakened in New Zealand. There are fewer newspapers but at the same time there is more news online. The move online has also seen the creation of news websites such as Newsroom, the Spinoff, and many commentators, such as Bernard Hickey and Karl du Fresne, have their own online presence as well.

On the other side, there has been a rise in the number of communications staff in government departments. But this has also happened as their role has become broader to include, for example, the development of social media and internal communications material. Communications has become a profession in its own right with courses available at a number of New Zealand universities.

Bridges’call for evidence to support Fifield’s argument is fair. However, given the depth and length of Fifield’s experience, her concerns should not be ignored due to a lack of hard data. Any New Zealander who is an avid follower of media will have noticed the shift in the way the public service is responding to the media.

For her part, Fifield is publishing weekly a list of questions that haven’t been answered by government departments. What measures could government departments provide to counter this?

The interaction between journalists and communications teams is, of course, only one part of a transparent democracy as both writers point out, there are many others. However, public service communication teams are a critical part of democracy and it is reasonable that they should be held to account.


Jacqui Van Der Kaay, a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.