'Blurred' info on agenda

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:00 14/11/2012

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The Nelson City Council is to set up a communications policy to help guide rules around council publicity, after recent claims the line between information and publicity has been blurred.

The council's audit, risk and finance committee yesterday agreed to cement rules around managing communications as outlined by the auditor-general, and to establish a policy.

The council was recently questioned over its spending of more than $6500 of ratepayers' money in three months on a media campaign to promote what it does.

The My City My Council campaign, fronted by council staff, was funded from the publicity activity budget, approved as part of the annual publicity budget.

The council budgeted $197,500 this year for public communications, excluding salaries, council community relations manager Angela Ricker said recently.

The council employs seven staff to handle communications, some of whom worked part-time.

According to council estimates the total budget for council publicity for 2012-13 is $496,650.

Concerns were raised at the last audit, risk and finance committee meeting over plans to raise the profile of councillors to "promote a friendlier council face" via the council's own publication, Live Nelson.

Councillor Paul Matheson said yesterday the council's publication Live Nelson had gone from being informative to more of an advertisement.

Councillor Gail Collingwood added she would not be happy promoting herself any more than the work she did that was relevant to council matters.

Acting chief executive Richard Johnson said while he respected Mr Matheson's view, Live Nelson remained the council's primary device for sharing information with the community. He said there were "one or two things" in it that were different, such as the editorial written by the staff member who edited the publication.

He said there may be a view that the focus and balance had shifted, but it had not changed significantly.

Councillor Rachel Reese raised issues at last month's meeting about lack of clarity over attribution of council information in external publications. She said yesterday there were issues around stories provided to a private Nelson newspaper that had not been clearly attributed.

Ms Reese suggested the council was providing information to some media and not others, including stories the public might assume had been written by the journalists operating within the publication. She said such material needed to be labelled as "advertorial".

A council report to yesterday's meeting concluded that staff "had to ensure that attribution is requested of external publishers where staff write material that is not clearly attributable to the council".

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Mr Johnson said in response to a query over whether council staff had written a story that appeared in the Nelson Weekly, they had only provided background material to support an advertising campaign.

"They took the information and used it in a front page article," Mr Johnson said.

He conceded that the content of an email that gave rise to the suggestion staff had written an article "rang alarm bells" but further investigation led him to be satisfied that was not the case.

A Weekly representative earlier denied that the paper ran stories written by council staff.

The council said of the total $6654 spent on the My City My Council campaign to August this year, $3700 was spent on advertising in the Weekly, $1929 with Fresh FM community access radio including producer-host costs for the council-funded radio show, and $1025 with Fairfax Media's Stuff site.

Ms Reese said the auditor-general's guide recommended that every council should adopt a formal communications policy, and while the city council had an internal document, it did not have a policy.

- The Nelson Mail

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