Orillia mayor tries to put the local media in his inbox

It seems the Mayor of Orillia, a city here in Ontario, has had enough of those bothersome phone calls from the media.

Mayor Angelo Orsi announced yesterday that he is no longer accepting phone calls from the media. A memo from the mayor's office to the media stated that "all media questions are required to be in writing and e-mailed to Orsi". His rationale for the move? "This approach helps me keep track of what I am asked, what I did state, and see what gets printed. It helps keep my side of the story in check with what is used in relation to the context of the story."

If only it were that simple.

The media exists to serve as the eyes and ears for the working public, to question our leaders, keep them honest and report on the goings-on in our communities and governments at all levels. This move by the mayor of Orillia to put the local media in his inbox is a shortsighted tactic that I suspect is destined to backfire.

Of the hundreds of media training sessions I've facilitated over the past 17 years, some of the most challenging were with municipal mayors and councillors. They've always mostly been pleasant, well-meaning people, but local politicians play by a different set of rules. I've had councillors say they simply don't answer calls from the media and that they never will. Many of these politicians say they're suspicious of the motives of reporters and in speaking with these individuals, I can see that many of them have a palpable fear of dealing with the media.

On more than one occasion, I've had municipal politicians ask me whether it was acceptable to simply ask reporters to conduct interviews by email. My answer has always been the same. "No." That isn't to say email doesn't have a role to play. There will be times when email is the quickest way to get back to a reporter with a short response or to clarify an answer. But trying to limit all local media relations to email won't work over the long-term.

The mayor's announcement implies he's running the show when it comes to the local media. As he may find out over the next few months, that's not the case. Ultimately, it's the reporters who are in control. Here are a few predictions about what's (hopefully) going to happen in Orillia over the next few months:

- First, reporters will start going to other spokespeople for quotes on their stories. Other councillors, committee members, heads of local citizens' groups, etc. There will also be an increase in the number of 'anonymous sources' being quoted in the local media. Reporters are like water. They will find the path of least resistance. If the mayor's office is too slow to respond, or appears to be responding with outright 'spin', they will go to other sources. And that's a lost opportunity for the mayor, who may find himself on the sidelines when it comes to telling his story.

- If there is a contentious issue in the community, the mayor may find himself being ambushed by reporters desperate for information. At the grocery store. At the airport. At a hockey game. At his home. Imagine a food or water contamination situation where the mayor will only conduct interviews by email.

People who run for public office have an obligation to speak with the media. That includes phone calls and face to face interviews. Time will tell if this 'email only' approach will work in Orillia. If I were a local reporter in Orillia, I can tell you I wouldn't be too thrilled with it. And I hope the local media takes him to task for the decision, before other politicians try to follow suit. Even as someone who coaches spokespeople on how to conduct better interviews, I disagree with the approach. What's next? "I'll only conduct interviews by text message?"

No matter how well-meaning the intentions might be, I suspect this move by the mayor of Orillia to keep the media at arm's length won't sit well with reporters or the public. Even if it's not the case, it smells vaguely of fear and mistrust. And that's not a solid foundation for successful media relations.

If I were running for mayor of Orillia in the next municipal election, I know what my platform would be: Openness, accountability and a willingness to speak with the media (and, by extension, the public) face to face.