Consultant did sweeping communications review

The province hired a consultant in late 2011 to carry out a sweeping $150,000 examination of how it gets its message out to the public.

Work was completed in early 2012 for N.L. government, cost $150K

The province hired a consultant in late 2011 to do a $150,000 review of government communications. (CBC)

Premier Kathy Dunderdale has acknowledged a need to change the way her government communicates with the public.

CBC News has learned that the Newfoundland and Labrador government hired an outside firm to give her some advice on how to do that.

The province selected a consultant in late 2011 to carry out a sweeping $150,000 examination of how it gets its message out.

Toronto-based Fleishman-Hillard Inc. did the work.

Dunderdale hinted at work to revamp government communications in a September 2012 interview on the CBC-TV show On Point with David Cochrane.

"We’ve developed a strategic plan on communications right across government, and particularly coming out of my office, so that we effectively communicate to the people of the province why it is we’re doing the things that we’re doing," Dunderdale said.

She said in that interview it is "critical" for people of the province to understand why the government is making certain decisions.

"Maybe we haven’t done as good a job of that as we ought to have done," the premier noted.

No press release was ever issued about the consultant’s review, or its results. It was commissioned by Executive Council.

CBC News obtained some details about the consultant’s work using provincial access-to-information laws.

The government released the contract, amounts paid, salary surveys of communications professionals and the winning proposal from the consultant.

But the actual 68-page report submitted by Fleishman-Hillard to the province was withheld. So were 40 pages of related e-mail correspondence.

According to Executive Council, they fall under new classes of cabinet records created by Bill 29.

'Valuable' assessment

The premier's office steered interview requests to Executive Council, which issued a prepared statement defending the contract.

"The communications audit by Fleishman-Hillard was valuable in providing an assessment of government’s corporate communications function and recommendations on optimizing the function," Glenda Power, the associate secretary to cabinet in Executive Council's communications branch, wrote in an email.

"Implementation is ongoing."

While not much is known about what the consultant recommended, the province’s initial call for consultants outlined what government officials were seeking.

"Under this review the successful proponent will be responsible for identifying weaknesses, building on strengths of the current system and identify future ‘best practices’ and goals that will ensure optimal communications support," the provincial request noted.

The consultant was asked to speak with top civil servants, cabinet ministers and government communications officials as part of the review.

‘I need to change our communication plan'

The governing Progressive Conservatives have seen their popularity ebb since Dunderdale scored a big majority win in the fall 2011 provincial election.

The communications review was commissioned the month after that election victory.

"I don’t think I need to change my leadership style," Dunderdale told On Point in September 2012. "Good leadership and good stewardship sometimes require that you make difficult decisions. And you know they’re not popular decisions.

"What I need to do, and I recognized this some months ago, is that I need to change our communication plan, so that people have a better understanding of what it is we’re trying to achieve."

The month after that interview, the province announced the creation of an Office of Public Engagement.

The government says the role of the office is "to ensure every provincial government department can launch effective, targeted and interactive public consultations, including social media."

Communications challenges

The Tory government has faced a number of communications challenges over the past 18 months, including the unpopular Bill 29, which enacted sweeping restrictions on access to information.

And there has been churn at the top. The job of communications director in the premier’s office has either been vacant or filled on an acting basis since late January.

There is cash set aside in the premier’s office budget for a staffer to oversee social media, although the position has yet to be filled.

And last month, Justice Minister Darin King created controversy when he linked NDP MHA Gerry Rogers to threatening comments posted by somebody else on a Facebook group to which Rogers was unaware she had been added.

The Speaker threw Rogers out of the house for refusing to apologize, but later acknowledged that decision was a mistake.

The Tories, who have not apologized, have been criticized for not understanding how social media works.

Within days of the Rogers fuss, CBC News discovered questionable connections and content on a number of PC MHAs’ Facebook sites and Twitter accounts, including Dunderdale’s.

The premier deleted her Twitter account in response.