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British Columbia Ministry questioned over $350,000 social media campaign during BCTF strike

Members of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation vote on tentative deal with the B.C. government in Vancouver on Sept. 18, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Teachers and politicians are questioning the B.C. Ministry of Education for spending more than $350,000 on a digital media campaign during the teachers strike last year.

"From our perspective, it's a flagrant waste of taxpayer's money," said Glen Hansman, vice-president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF). "The parent community at large isn't wading into the Twitterverse to be getting information from the government."

Documents released on Tuesday through the government's Freedom of Information portal provided a detailed list of the $352,644.57 paid to branding agency KIMBO Design Inc. to execute the province's social media campaign.

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The breakdown included $73,000 worth of sponsored posts for Facebook from Aug. 19 to Sept. 11. In the same period, $50,000 went toward promoted tweets on Twitter and $6,250 for Google Adwords.

The B.C. Ministry of Education said the "cost-effective" expense was necessary to keep parents informed.

"During the BCTF strike, there was a lot of teacher bargaining information circulating in social media," Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in a statement from the ministry.

"We had a responsibility to clearly present the government's positions and perspectives to British Columbians – especially parents."

The five-week teachers strike that delayed the start of the school year for students across province ended on Sept. 18. The B.C. Teachers Federation and the government agreed to a six-year deal.

As a result of the strike, families were able to register online at BCParentInfo.com to receive $40 a day for each child who missed school during the dispute. The education ministry said the social media expense was part of a campaign to ensure parents registered for the funding.

"Through social media channels, we were able to reach a large number of parents very quickly and efficiently, and the uptake was overwhelmingly positive. Virtually every eligible family subsequently registered for the program," Mr. Fassbender said.

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B.C. NDP education critic Rob Fleming said the information being promoted by the ministry was not neutral.

"I think there's lots of examples where the information government provided was political in nature and crossed the line," he said.

Mr. Hansman said he agrees that much of what was published online by the government was aimed to "discredit" teachers for "partisan purposes."

The opposition is also questioning the government's the choice of KIMBO Design, which was hired to design Premier Christy Clark's leadership campaign.

"I think this needs to be looked into further, the way the contract was awarded," Mr. Fleming said.

The perception of partisan advertising by the government is troublesome, the MLA said. Third-party oversight of government advertising, similar to the review Ontario's auditor-general conducts of government advertising, is needed in British Columbia, he added.

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"[The government] needs a watchdog. It needs some independent oversight to make sure that information is correct, useful and necessary," Mr. Fleming said.

The BCTF and the NDP called the expense for a social media campaign hypocritical because it followed a long labour dispute over government finances.

"It's really disrespectful considering … all the messaging put out there that we need to be mindful of our budgets," Mr. Hansman said. "It's dollars that could have been going into classrooms."

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