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Revolving door for spin doctors

08 Feb 2018

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The City of Melbourne is struggling to get enough “spin” on its media messaging, having churned 17 media advisers since mid-2015.

Statistically, in recent times, it has turned over its entire team of seven every year.

At the same time, a self-congratulatory report claims that in 2015/16 the City of Melbourne achieved a 92 per cent positive or neutral outcome from the 8533 stories in which it was mentioned.

The recently-published report by Media Measures Pty Ltd says only 8 per cent of stories were “unfavourable” to the council.

But is this just more “spin”? And why can’t it keep well-paid spin doctors within the fold?

The Media Measures report is a curious document as it claims the “key issues” of that year were: Moomba (775 stories); sustainability (354 stories); cycling and bicycle plan (209 stories); Queen Victoria Market renewal (81 stories); and Lacrosse Tower and apartment cladding (79 stories).

Homelessness and begging was the subject of 421 stories but didn’t rank as a key issue. Neither did planning, with 650 stories.

Another measure used by the report’s authors was whether stories about the council were “proactive” or “reactive”. It is no surprise that issues achieving a perfect 100 per cent score for their proactiveness were: Melbourne Music Week; ArtPlay; Docklands Library; Retail and hospitality; Melbourne Knowledge Week; Melbourne Day; City Library exhibitions; and Melbourne Awards.

It’s actually surprising that North Melbourne Arts House only achieved a 98.6 per cent score for proactiveness.

The measurement methodology presumably reflects the values, goals and aspirations of the council. But is it appropriate for a level of government to adopt such a corporate approach?

Another section outlines on how evident the city’s stated goals were in the reporting.

“The City of Melbourne’s vision statement – that the City of Melbourne will strive to achieve the community’s vision of a bold inspirational and sustainable city – was apparent in 5470 stories or 64 per cent of all media,” the report says.

Leaving the role since June 2015 were: Elizabeth Muling; Sam Bishop; Irene Vlahos; Shelley Blake; Jem Wilson; Katherine Millar; James Talia; Carlos Ibarra; Daniel Breen; Jason Berek-Lewis; Dharni Giri; Larisa Tait; Philip Blackman; Kate Loughnan; Kathy Alys; David King; and Matt Smithson.

Of the current team (Claudine Ledwidge-O’Reilly; Debbie Guest; Patrick Phillips; Brodie Bott; Brian Wilson; Mandy Frostick; and Bec Brewin), only Claudine Ledwidge-O’Reilly has been there more than a year.

The council says the number is not 17, but 12. It also says its people are so good, they are being headhunted.

Spokesperson Brodie Bott said: “Twelve permanent full-time City of Melbourne media adviser roles were vacated between June 2015 and December 2017. Of those, three employees had up to three years’ service, one employee had up to five years’ service and another had 10 years’ service with the City of Melbourne.”

“There are two main factors that have contributed to the recruitment and retention of media advisers in recent years:

An increase in large infrastructure projects and initiatives in Melbourne has driven unprecedented demand for skilled media communications professionals across the sector; and 

City of Melbourne’s media advisers are highly sought after and are known across the industry for excelling at what they do. In recent years, former City of Melbourne media advisers have been recruited to a variety of challenging and high profile roles with major government, media and corporate organisations.”

Former councillor and respected journalist Stephen Mayne observed: “The revolving door of media advisers reflects a number of factors including excessive use of contractors rather than permanent employees and the high pressure nature of the work which tends to attract younger more transitory employees seeking to further their careers.”

“There has also been inattention at senior levels by the likes of Martin Cutter who should have provided a better career path for the high performers and helped retain popular and effective operators such as Lynne Haultain and Sam Bishop.”

“There was perhaps also a little bit too much pressure coming from the Lord Mayor’s chief of staff Amelia Bitsis whose boss is admittedly overly media focused but a highly effective communicator with very high standards and expectations,” Mr Mayne said.

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