Rethinking Accountability

sunshineDisclosure: I work for a public sector institution affected by the Sunshine List, though I won’t be appearing on it! Also, this article - like everything on this site – is my personal opinion.

Ontario’s Sunshine List is no longer effective.

The list, created ostensibly to keep public sector organizations in Ontario accountable by forcing them to disclose all employees who make over $100,000 a year, may not have ever been effective.

For those who are listed publicly, in alphabetical order, it is their yearly chance to be demonized for earning a good wage and having a good job. I especially feel bad for those at the top of the list, since it is such a long document and most readers probably don’t get past the first few pages. Sidebar: You would think they would put the highest earners at the top, rather than annually subject anyone whose last name starts with an “A” and whose employer’s name starts with “A” to additional angst. (Further disclosure: the organization I work for, Algonquin College, appears near the top of the “Colleges” list each year)

For those who pay taxes (all of us), it is our chance to become offended at how the list has grown this year (as it does each year) and impotently shake our fists in anger. Except that is about all we can do.

The biggest issue I have with the whole list is that these people who are being shoved out into the spotlight (even as we envy them for their wonderful, high paying jobs) are not responsible for setting their own wages. The unions and boards and Ministries who set and negotiate the wages get off scot-free, while the people they hired (for good money) are left holding the bag. The employees become the ‘faces’ of the story and anger becomes misplaced.

That’s not the only issue with the list. The list is provided entirely without context. How long has this person been working for the government? Doesn’t say. How many hours of overtime did they put in last year? No idea. Did they get a raise last year? Unless you dig out the previous list too, assuming they were on it, you have no idea. All you have is a name, a title, an employer, and two dollar figures (salary, and taxable benefits).

The fact that the list is without so much context is probably what makes it such a great media story each year. It is an opportunity to demonize thousands of people without worrying about things like facts or details. Take this CBC story for example – it highlights some highly paid people, but it doesn’t provide any details about whether $388,000 is a lot of money to pay for a university president or not. To most taxpayers, that probably sounds like a lot of money. And yet there are seven university presidents on last year’s list at least (I would bet all Ontario university presidents are on the list, actually). So is there a grand conspiracy to overpay for university presidents? Or is that merely the going rate to get a quality president? (Incidentally, the CBC article quotes a politician who calls for wage freezes, but leaves out the wage freezes affecting certain employee groups – wage freezes which were already implemented prior to the publication of their story)

Those who stand by the list will argue it promotes accountability and transparency. I am all for both. But tell me: can you name one person who was hired for less money because of the Sunshine List? How about someone who was fired, or got a pay cut? Do you believe there are examples? I would argue André Marin, Ontario’s Ombudsman, has made more happen through his investigations, which have actually started to address some of the issues by giving taxpayers more information, instead of just a name and two numbers.

Like by-elections, the annual publishing of the Sunshine List is a chance for voters to vent. Unlike by-elections, venting about the Sunshine List has no effect. The release of the list has just become a customary thing – just checking another box for the Ontario government – and so I question whether it has even the impact it had before, whatever that was. It is more habit than actual effort to engage with taxpayers, and engagement has to be a hallmark of accountability.

What do you think? How would you change the Sunshine list? Leave a comment below.

Case Study: DIY Media Training

Media TrainingBackground

I have now worked for Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada for about two years. Algonquin is a rapidly growing and rapidly changing organization, and the same goes for the Public Relations and Communications team (of which I am a part). It is a large organization and a small PR team, and shortly after I started it was realized that we as an organization had to modernize our approach to media relations. Before, it was the ol’ “Everything through PR” type of command-and-control style of doing business, and most employees did not speak to the media because there was significant confusion over who was even supposed to be doing that.

Trends in industry, and the size of our department, meant it was time for a change. With 3,500 employees, three Ontario campuses, and not a single employee dedicated full-time to media relations, the conversation became “How do we empower employees to be successful and independent in media situations in which they are subject matter experts?” Part one of our solution: create a media training program for employees centred around the theme of empowerment of our subject matter experts.

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Blowing Smoke

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, according to one old saying – a saying which happens to be very popular in the journalism industry.

But what happens when the smoke is just someone blowing smoke?

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What is media relations worth?

Picture this.

You, the PR person who just spent your morning drafting a press release and getting it approved, push send on it.

Your marketing automation software pulls in your media list stored in your customer relationship management (CRM) solution, sends to the list, and, once journalists start opening it and clicking the links, it feeds the data about the open rates, click-through rates, and other activity back to the CRM program, and that gives you detailed information on how each journalist on your list is interacting with your release along with past media campaigns you have conducted.

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Paid Speaking Engagements by Journalists are Fine

“Can a smile elect a President?”

The question asked by a 1984 study which showed that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings smiled more when mentioning Ronald Reagan (and eventually other Republican candidates) than he did when mentioning Democratic candidates. It was also a noticeable difference between Jennings’ expression and that of his competitors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

It didn’t seem to matter that ABC claimed to have covered more negative stories about Reagan than the other networks. It may, or may not, have been relevant that many or most of ABC news viewers seemed to support Reagan. What I think most of us can agree on is that Jennings was likely a Republican supporter privately.

Journalists can vote. Journalists can hold opinions. As the Peter Jennings study showed, journalists’ opinions are sometimes revealed in unexpected ways, and it is impossible to measure the impact that can have on their audience. It is impossible to ask them to not have an opinion and to not have a bias – as impossible as it would be to tell them they cannot vote.

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Putting profits before consumers? Fail.

Coca Cola thinks you are dumb for believing Coca Cola’s claims about vitaminwater. You almost have to wonder if that statement was dreamed up by a lawyer or some other individual who never chatted with Coke’s PR team. Either that, or this lawsuit must be worth a ruinous amount of money for the soft drink maker to think it is worth insulting a whole bunch of consumers.

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