The Yukon government outnumbers the Northwest Territories and Nunavut combined when it comes to flak-catchers, with 51 at its disposal.
That’s up from having approximately 40 communications staff in 2009.
Some departments, such as Education, have added significant manpower – six years ago, it had one communications person on staff, while today it has at least five.
But that increase can explained by a variety of reasons, explains Sarah Crane, director of communications for the Executive Council Office.
“The number of communications people you need is directly related to the programs and services you’re offering,” she said.
“Each department decides what they need to support their programs and services for communications. Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a big emphasis on online communications, so that number (51) includes six dedicated web people that have been hired.”
Moreover, there are more dedicated directors of communications nowadays, whereas it used to be more common to have a person in the role of joint director of policy and communications, Crane adds.
“And over the years, the public expectation of access to information and communication has increased, and not just online, but when you look at a number of public consultations that we do, there’s an increase,” she said.
The benefit of having more communications staff is that information is more easily accessible, and transmitted in plain language, Crane explained.
But Liberal Leader Sandy Silver argues that having more communications staff is not necessarily beneficial to Yukoners.
“The irony here is that communications personnel in general are supposed to be there to engage information sharing – but I would say that under the direction of this extremely secretive Yukon Party government, they end up doing damage control and spin as a daily job,” he said.
“It’s funny because these salaries come from the taxpayer, so the public is actually paying to be misled.”
Because the government makes decisions in silos, he said, they have control over the messaging and communications passed along to Yukoners, he added.
He referred to the amendments made to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act back in 2012, when the Yukon Party made changes that restricted public access to some government documents, including briefing reports prepared for ministers.
In a report prepared by the information and privacy commissioner at the time, he pointed out that some of the territory’s new measures to restrict access to information were without precedent in Canada.
One section of the act, since changed to become more restrictive, was instrumental in uncovering the government had misled the public about the budget for the F.H. Collins school replacement project, said Silver.
“Secrecy and spin is the modus operandi of these guys,” he said.
Jim Butler, longtime editor of the Whitehorse Star, said he remembers a time in the 1980s as a political reporter when it was a lot easier to get in touch with people in government.
He said it was common back then to call department officials, deputy ministers and even ministers directly.
“Straightforward and simple,” he said.
“Now, reporters sometimes have to wait several hours for a communications person to call back, let alone begin the process of speaking directly to the official with the information they’re seeking. Communications personnel have their purpose, of course, but their presence doesn’t necessarily speed up and simplify the flow of news, and by extension, the process of informing the public about the government’s activities.”
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