Now you're a councillor

Now you're a councillor

A site for women councillors in Victorian local government

Partners, not adversaries…

Jane Cafarella has four decades experience as a journalist, playwriter and cartoonist. For 10 years, she worked as a sub-editor, section editor and columnist for The Age, before establishing her own consultancy.

My own lessons in local government took years to learn, but chief among them was that the relationship between the media and local government is not as adversaries, but partners.

The keys to productive relationships between local government and the media today are still – education, communication and understanding.

When journalists understand some of the social, political and economic evolution of local government, when they understand how communities work and the role of their own paper in their community, they begin to be better judges of what is really news and to write more informed reports.

When councils understand the role of the local paper, the social, political and economic history of local media and the importance of deadlines and access to informed sources, they begin to get better reports written about them.
In short, both the reporters and the councils begin to understand that this is a partnership not a re-enactment of the Cold War.

Understanding each other’s roles and needs does not mean that, from then on every report is positive. Councils must understand that just as the council is there to act on behalf of residents and ratepayers, the reporter is there to act on behalf of the reader.

Communication between journalists and councillors is made especially difficult by the fact that all councillors, and council officers in particular, seem to speak another language. Let me illustrate this by referring to the ‘Jargon Immunisation Program’, where journalists learn that “a series of information sessions” are actually meetings, and that “the initial preferred location” means the previous site.

So what can you do to help your cause? A few words of advice:

  • Learn and respect deadlines.
  • Understand that restricting information arouses suspicion. It is better to work with the journalist to inform him or her as fully as possible.
  • Journalists would much rather speak to experts in their fields than PR people who cannot answer the questions that arise from their processed statements. Not allowing councillors or officers to speak arouses suspicion and makes us think you don’t trust your own staff and elected representatives.
  • Don’t tell us what’s news – or worse still decide that our request is not really an important story and ignore it. Don’t make us justify our requests.
  • Don’t let your egos or the need for political survival dictate how you respond to our requests.
  • Don’t issue statements instead of giving interviews.
  • Write and talk in plain English.