It’s not usual for people in the PR game to make the news when they take a new job. But there have been a couple of big changes in the last 48 hours here in Ottawa that have got a lot of chatter going in the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

City of Ottawa director of communications Denis Abbott was dismissed on Wednesday, and now it appears that there have been three hires made in the communications shop at the city.

Chris Day, a former reporter for CTV Ottawa who has been press secretary for Transport Minister John Baird for the last year or so, is going to become a manager (don’t know the exact title) in the comms shop.

Meanwhile, Patrick Dare is leaving his job as a City Hall reporter with the Ottawa Citizen and Derek Puddicombe is doing the same at the Ottawa Sun. Both will be “communications strategists” for the city.

So why is this news? Part of it is timing — The sudden departure of Abbott in the wake of the city’s auditor-general report focused attention of the media on communications. In addition, the city’s had lots of issues to confront on the communications front — the green-bin introduction and its associated fee and dispute between the city and the contractor; the ongoing light-rail file; Lansdowne Live consultations and decisions; and the prosecution of Mayor Larry O’Brien‘s criminal charges. Then, when reporters “go over to the dark side”, it further focuses interest.

For example, the hiring of CTV reporter Rosemary Thompson by the National Arts Centre didn’t get this much attention, in my opinion.

But here’s a couple of questions and issues this latest move by the city brings up.

  1. Patrick Dare has a story in today’s Ottawa Citizen about an $865K error in a contract between the city and a new arts venue in the east end. Puddicombe had a number of stories in the Sun yesterday. While I respect both men, at the very least the perception that one day they are the objective, impartial journalist; the next, in the employ of the organization they were covering yesterday, is not good.
  2. While I don’t believe this, the argument could be made that the city is squelching journalistic enterprise and investigation by bringing two experienced and savvy reporters into the fold. Some are already making that criticism.
  3. Communications does not equal media relations. In a column written by Sun reporter Susan Sherring (who one assumes isn’t gonna get hired tomorrow by the city), she runs the following quotes:

“I want the communications group focused on getting the city story out. I want people who can think about what the story is. We need to do a better job on the daily stuff that comes out of the media,” said Kanellakos.

“We’re bringing in people who know how to deal with the media,” said College Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

Certainly, media relations is important. I’ve spent a long time doing it myself. But I hope that Dare, Puddicombe and Day are going to set and be judged on other goals than just “getting good ink” for the city. While it’s understandable that Sue Sherring, a longtime print journalist, would see that as a key, and it’s not surprising that the quotes she ran support that view, communications at the city could take a far broader view of the tools available.

For example:

I’m not trying to poke holes in the city’s communications efforts. But if the new hires have been simply hired to stop the negative stories, not only will their considerable skill be squandered, but there will be missed opportunities for the city of Ottawa to communicate more directly and effectively with its citizens.

(DISCLOSURE: I’ve dealt with Dare, Puddicombe, and Day over the years. I’m not “friends” with them, but I would say I’m friendly with all three.)

UPDATED 2/12/09: According to the Sun and the City blog, the city has now apparently also hired reporter Caroline Barrière of French-language Ottawa newspaper Le Droit for its comms team. Her colleague Mario Boulianne wrote of her departure (translation mine):

I began working with Caroline Barrière more than 11 years ago. At that time, Caro was with the arts section. She stayed there for several years before accepting a position with the CIty of Ottawa. After that, she covered the health and education beats, as well as writing a weekly editorial. Yesterday, she turned an important page in her life, leaving Le Droit after 13 years.

We will miss her diligence and experience enormously, not even mentioning her pleasant disposition and her witty — sometimes sarcastic — remarks, which always made us laugh. And I know that her new employer will benefit from an employee who is dynamic, cheerful, and very competent.


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