In olden times, kings used to build moats around their castles, and even entire cities, to keep out the enemy.
In current times, government leaders build metaphorical moats, also to distance themselves from the people they want to keep away.
These moats are called “communications” or “PR” people. And like the actual moats of olden days, they are designed insulate and separate the government from those who want to get in.
For congressmen, senators and governors who are too busy to handle the dozens of phone calls and emails they get on a daily basis, they need someone to direct traffic. But now even local officials are seeing the benefits of placing a barrier between themselves and their constituents.
The little town of Rotterdam — with a population of just under 30,000 — has decided to hire a media/public relations firm to handle requests from the media, after a few articles appeared in The Gazette that made public officials look bad.
One town board member said the firm will serve as “the initial point of contact for media inquiries and will provide statements or arrange interviews when needed.” Town officials, they say, will still be accessible directly. But to whom, and for how much longer?
In other government agencies with communications departments, some actually prohibit anyone from speaking directly to the public and press — even on routine or technical matters —without first getting permission from the communications office.
That’s not to protect them from being interrupted on a busy day. That’s a way for the government to prescreen and sanitize employees’ comments to prevent them from saying anything that might be perceived as negative.
In Rotterdam, the message will, in time, get passed down that anyone in town government who gets an outside call will have to go through the communications firm first.
There’s also another consideration in this: PR firms cost money. Rotterdam will spend up to $36,000 a year on theirs.
How many potholes would $36,000 pay to fill? How much road salt or office supplies or fittings for broken sewer pipes could it buy? How much part-time summer labor or police overtime would have to go unfunded?
And seriously, how many news organizations are actually calling Rotterdam officials on a regular basis to justify this expense? Us? The TU? Channel 6?
Rotterdam is the first community in Schenectady County to hire out its media relations, but it won’t be the last. Officials in other small towns will soon catch on, and the people they serve will soon be standing on the edge of a moat looking in.
Government is supposed to be accessible.
Digging barriers to prevent and discourage citizen access is just the opposite.