As a staunchly ethical public relations practitioner, I bristle when I hear the phrase “PR stunt.” It cheapens this gig for all of us. What’s worse than talking about PR stunts? Performing them.
So I was glad to hear Mayor Matt Brown say the new Community Economic Road Map was not a PR stunt like we’d seen with economic action plans in the past, and I believe that. It contains 65 carefully crafted action items that I sincerely believe will be implemented over the next five years.
Nope, it’s not a PR stunt like we’ve seen before. It’s a whole new kind of PR stunt, and I’m not sure the people championing it realize it. The public consultation it’s lauded for was narrow, awfully front-loaded, and I dare say, a bit disingenuous (though I’d be at less risk to say it was just not as far-reaching as the accolades might have you believe). Especially in light of Art Zuidema’s 2014 pitch for a “true grassroots level” process.
It did come promisingly out of the gate. A partnership panel of community leaders was convened. Their first two meetings in April and May informed the vision and priorities for the road map. I was told they’d be the ones approving the plan, but the members of that panel were kept under wraps until the final plan was published, maybe because it contained very few of the business leaders we kept hearing were guiding the ship.
Forty-eight other folks were hand-picked to do one-hour interviews between February and April. Their responses to a series of set questions about London’s challenges and strengths informed the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis released in May. None of those people ever saw a suggested priority or a proposed action item.
There was an open community survey: two boxes asked for the city’s two greatest opportunities for economic growth and how to achieve them. Since that’s a pretty ineffective survey anyway, perhaps we shouldn’t mind that its responses were so far from top-of-mind that the survey is still live, still insisting your responses are needed for a process that long ago concluded.
In June, I asked city staff whether there’d be another opportunity for input. I was assured the key documents would be released for community engagement before it was finalized and sent to council in the fall.
Summer passed and winds began to blow, but no draft plan materialized. In September, the partnership panel met again, and my hopes lifted, but alas, still no draft. Imagine my surprise when a finalized plan turned up at council in November.
The action plan went to the partnership panel, who were told it was based on community input. Then it went to council who were told it was approved by a partnership panel. Then it went to the community when they were told it was endorsed by council. And somehow, I feel like I just realized the kids all said they were sleeping over at each other’s houses, and now we’re on the hook for 65 policy-guiding action items that mostly just protect the jobs of the people who orchestrated it all.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of a public relations stunt. It’s a better, more sophisticated stunt than we’ve seen before, but that should only make us all the more worried. We deserve better, and we can do better.
Originally published November 19, 2015 in Our London.