Not so in the world of public relations, a popular choice for former journalists looking for better pay and new challenges. Managing the message and keeping the boss happy is the priority. Instead of looking for the manila envelope with details of a scandal, you live in dread of such leaks, which can reflect badly on the people for whom you work.
The transition from watchdog to keeper of secrets, I would think, must be difficult. In recent years I’ve seen many talented journalists cross the floor, so to speak – former colleagues at Sun Media, such as Denis St. Pierre and Lara Bradley; Dan Lessard and Conway Fraser, both of CBC; and, very recently, Todd Robson, of CTV.
And so it was with mixed feelings June 12 that I looked across city council chambers to see another longtime colleague and friend take up his new position at the city.
Mike Whitehouse, a fiercely independent, award-winning journalist who has drawn fire from many municipal politicians over the years, is now working for Mayor Marianne Matichuk, as her communications and media adviser.
I worked with him at Northern Life years ago and, more recently, at Sun Media’s newspaper in Sudbury, where he earned Ontario Newspaper Awards for his city council coverage, as well as a National Newspaper Award nomination for his work uncovering scandal at Sudbury Transit.
He’s uniquely qualified for the post, considering not only his background covering city hall, but the fact he studied city planning at university before making the switch to journalism. So, I asked him, what’s it like on the other side?
“It’s been quite an adjustment,” he said. “It’s only been two days, but there are times that I feel like I’m Daniel in a den of lions.
“But it has been really, really exciting. Journalism, you know what it’s like. There’s a lot of stop and start, stop and start. You work really hard for a while, and then not so hard for a while. Here it’s just, go, go, go, go.”
This isn’t the first news story about his transition. A local TV station ran a story that insisted Matichuk was breaking her own hiring policy. Whitehouse, who has a two-year contract, denies this, saying the attrition policy doesn’t ban all hiring at city hall, and he certainly isn’t the first person hired since the policy came into effect.
“The mayor’s office has a budget for four people. She’s had three … since someone retired at Christmas,” he said. “I think she felt constrained and short-handed not having someone in this role all this time ... The work that needed to get done, wasn’t getting done, and she recognized that.”
The TV report also infamously ran a photo of a Mike Whitehouse, but it wasn't the Sudbury version. It was of a candidate for local government in England.
Showing off his wry sense of humour, his Facebook site has a photo album entitled “Will the real Mike Whitehouse please stand up?” containing several pictures of other Mike Whitehouses of the world he’s found on Google.
He’ll need that sense of humour, I suspect, as he tries to convey Matichuk’s message to city council and the public. He was often at odds with some councillors while he was a reporter, but that was then. So far, so good, he says, when it comes to building relations with them.
“I’ve talked to a handful,” he said June 12. “And it’s all been positive so far.”
Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli said he expects Whitehouse can be an asset to the mayor, given his background in newspapers and city planning.
“Mike is very good at what he does,” Belli said. “And he comes into the job with some impressive credentials.”
He said improving communications at all levels is priority for the city and Whitehouse can be a “big factor” in that process.
Ward 9 Coun. Doug Craig also supports the hiring.
“I’ve known Mike for a very long time, and he’s always been very good at his job,” Craig said June 15. “His skills will only enhance the work of the mayor’s office.”
Whitehouse said his duties are limited in scope, focused on getting the mayor’s message out, not on crafting policy.
“No,” he said. “The mayor is very much her own person. She has a pretty clear idea of what she wants to do, and how she wants to do it.
“So I’m dealing with media inquiries, writing press releases, attending (Matichuk’s) public engagements, her speeches, briefing notes. And every now and then, giving advice.”
He said he sees areas where communication can be improved, and is anxious to get going.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities for the city to communicate better – within city staff, and the community at large,” he said. “I can just speak for the mayor’s office, and I think she recognizes that her communication with the media has not been perfect, simply because she has been short-staffed. That will change.”
But at the end of the day, it’s Matichuk who is setting the course, he said.
“She is the CEO of the city, and she is doing it the way she wants it.”
So what was he feeling, I asked him, as he looked over at the media table, no longer part of that fraternity?
“Equal measures of regret and relief,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “Regret because I enjoyed sitting there. You had nothing invested, you were just an observer. It was like watching something at home on TV.
“And relief because, when the meeting’s over, I get to go home, at least on some days. Whereas you guys all have to get writing.”
Posted by Arron Pickard