a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quite the soap opera between cable & TV

The ongoing feud between the television networks and the cable companies has been raging on for months with some very expensive campaigning while the Canadian public and even their elected representatives have largely been spectators.

CRTC hearings will be continuing into the New Year. But with the two feuding cartels becoming more strident it is unlikely Canadians and their politicians will be able to remain on the sidelines much longer. The social contract, developed over 40 years by several federal governments, between the networks, cable companies and Canadian viewers is coming apart because of changing economic conditions.

The TV-Cable feud may be nominally about whether the broadcasters should be able to charge the cable guys for the right to transmit their signals. But far more will be at stake than fee for carriage as the three-way pact between the two cartels and the Feds comes apart.

The cable guys for example are getting tired of contributing to the Canadian Television Fund. The broadcasters won't commit to contributing more to Canadian television production with fees for carriage.

The CRTC, as the national broadcast regulator, traditionally has sat on top of the three-way pact. But whatever it decides, fee for carriage likely will be reviewed by the federal cabinet.

Now that the Harper government has overruled the CRTC to allow Egyptian-owned Globalive to offer wireless service in Canada, it is difficult to imagine the cabinet staying out of this soap opera. This government likes to make policy decisions by stealth rather than review.

Expect it to gauge which way the public wind is blowing and then choose a winning side at cabinet. Since the broadcasters were able to get their message out first -- cable companies are freeloaders -- they definitely have an edge.

At this point, it is hard to feel much sympathy for either of the feuding cartels.

The television networks are being a little hypocritical about saving local TV after years of cutbacks and consolidation has reduced local stations to turnkey operations. So far there is no guarantee that any of the carriage fees charges to the cable companies would do anything for local television service. More likely the extra money will be used to buy more American programming.

They also get to block out the commercials on American signals and patch in their own -- a pretty sweet indirect subsidy.

As for the cable companies, it must be a nice ride not to have to pay for most of what you are supplying to subscribers on your infrastructure. I say most because they do pay for American signals. However, given what Canadians pay for cable and satellite service, they clearly aren't shy about passing on those costs. They are hardly in a position to be pointing fingers at rapacious broadcasters for being greedy.

The trouble is both sides have legitimate arguments. This is not a simple policy question.

This is why Ottawa should be negotiating a new social contract that is in the interests of Canadians instead of playing Solomon to two feuding cartels.

The CRTC is only the regulator that must interpret and enforce existing policy. The elected government should be throwing open the whole issue to public debate.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Branding skill won't prevent disasters in public relations

There isn't much doubt that the current federal government has done a very good job at branding itself as the party of ordinary, hardworking Canadians -- the Tim Horton's crowd as their strategists say.

In addition, the government of Stephen Harper practises the most disciplined messaging Ottawa has ever seen, and likely will ever see.

So how does a government that understands branding and message control so well get itself into so many public relations disasters?

Copenhagen, Afghanistan and Richard Colvin, most of Jason Kenney's speeches -- there is no point in listing them all. Canadians have grown used to being offended by the Harper government as much as they admire its ability to hold power.

One reason for this dichotomy might be this government doesn't do well in situations it can't control. In the current Afghanistan affair, there have been just too many wild cards -- such as a civil servant who insisted on telling the truth no matter the consequences -- for the government's message managers to handle. It was a similar story in Copenhagen.

Once the Harper government loses control of the narrative, it has trouble regaining it.

Another reason is there is a difference between brand management and reputation management just as there is a difference between gaining power and maintaining it.

Brand management is making your brand or mark over your competitors and then validating it. Reputation management is protecting the precious brand. Fortunately for the government there may be plenty of time to learn this because the Liberals don't seem to understand either.

Finally, the Harper government may want to send some of its leading tacticians off to the public relations course at Algonquin College in west end Ottawa. This government doesn't practise public relations. It practises propaganda.

The practice of public relations is winning over an audience with solid narrative built on facts that can be documented and validated. Propaganda is smearing opponents with half truths and outright lies. Sooner of later, Canadians will grow weary.

As always, I welcome your views.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's not the scandal that does you in, it's how you manage it

Quick now, what do Tiger Woods and Stephen Harper have in common? (No it is not serial adultery.)

Both men must now deal with unnecessary damage caused by poor scandal management.

Tiger's mistake in not owning up to his "transgressions" soon after his early morning car accident have been well publicized and there is no point repeating them here. Harper's mistakes are a little more complicated.

The Afghan detainee scandal, which has put the government and opposition on a collision course toward a parliamentary crisis in the New Year, broke when Harper was out of the country. Perhaps Harper's major mistake in this affair was leaving Defence Minister Peter MacKay in charge on this file.

In previous scandals like the Chuck Cadmen affair, the Tories have been able to bully and bulldoze their way through them until media interest died. MacKay likely thought he could do the same by claiming there has been no tangible proof any Afghans detained by Canadian forces have been tortured. He also said senior diplomat Richard Colvin had become a Taliban dupe by even suggesting such a thing in testimony before a special Commons committee.

The problem with the bulldoze-and-bully technique is that the Opposition gets a little smarter every time you kick sand in its face. The Opposition-controlled committee led by Liberal Ujjal Dosangh and New Democrat Paul Dewar were able to keep the narrative moving despite a blitzkrieg of government stonewall tactics.

Last week the Opposition got two very lucky breaks. First, several dozen retired ambassadors rebuked (quite rightly) MacKay for trying to demonize and destroy a civil servant who could not fight back. Then Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk corrected himself and acknowledged prisoners detained by Canadians had indeed been tortured after they were turned over to Afghan authorities.

At the moment it is a matter of speculation whether Natynczyk simply decided to do the right thing or roll over on the government before it decides to pin the blame on someone for the mess it is now in.

Regardless of motive, the Opposition clearly has the upper hand in this affair.

MacKay so far is the major casualty. His initial claim of there being no proof of torture was risky at best since there have been numerous published reports of such a thing coming out of Afghanistan for two years.

Trying to demonize a civil servant in public is regarded by Ottawa insiders as something akin to shooting Bambi. And if you must take the risk of shooting Bambi make bloody sure you score a kill shot.

Harper won't dump MacKay from cabinet simply because the public won't demand it. However, MacKay has made some serious career limiting mistakes and may have to be moved from Defence in a cabinet shuffle.

Things are now oh-so-different from the end of October when the Tories were heading to majority territory in the polls and Canadians were actually starting to like the Prime Minister.

The torture scandal may not put the Liberals ahead in the polls. But it will most certainly rob the government of the momentum it had been enjoying.

If the government continues to be embarrassed by contradictory disclosures on this file, watch for it to prorogue Parliament for the second time in a year. Only this time it won't have to go groveling to the Governor General.

The Prime Minister can simply decide there will be a Throne Speech, a new Parliament and possibly a reconfigured cabinet after Christmas -- all to give things a fresh start and of course to change an increasingly ugly channel.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Harper has been framed as international bad guy

There is an interesting irony as Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to the Copenhagen climate summit this week.

Harper has enjoyed the political success he has had by being able to define the public identity of his opponents and shape public debate of all issues that can affect his government. This is known as framing in the spin doctoring business.

Now someone has done it to him. The international climatology community has made Harper the world's bad guy of global warning.

UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon has taken a very undiplomatic swipe at Canada -- and therefore Harper -- for dragging our feet on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

British environmentalist George Monbiot used a column in the Guardian to accuse Harper's government of using its influence among the G8 countries to block every effort to reach an international agreement at this week's Copenhagen conference.

He concluded that under Harper Canada is descending from "beautiful and cultured" state into a "corrupt petrostate" dependent on the continuing use of fossil fuels.

Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has entered the fray, although not as harshly. He implied to the international media that Canada won't make any decision on climate change without checking with Washington.

Our Prime Minister appears to have replaced George W. Bush as the international anti-Christ of climatology.

In fairness, it is human nature for anyone driven by a cause to seek out a bad guy to blame for delay and obstruction. As Harper well knows, you can build public support by personifying an issue into designated villains.

Harper got elected in 2006 by demonizing the lobbying industry in his promise to clean up Canadian politics even the overwhelming majority of Ottawa lobbyists are about as controversial as pension actuaries.

Now to a certain degree, the same thing is being done to him.

But there is still an international bewilderment on how Canada has abandoned its honest broker role in world affairs. Who would have imagined that anyone would call for Canada to be expelled from the Commonwealth? Yet several advocacy groups are pushing for just that.

Last week in Ottawa at a function attended by the diplomatic community, several ambassadors privately criticized Harper for leaving the UN assembly to do a photo op at Tim Horton's. As a senior ambassador put it, how can Canada expect to win a seat on the UN Security Council when donuts seem to be more important than world affairs?

Canada'a international fall from grace may not resonate immediately with Canadian voters. But it will eventually as Canadians wonder about future economic growth. This is why Harper is now pushing hard to develop trade with China, India and other countries that were barely on his radar couple of years ago.

Harper badly needs an international makeover just as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff needs one domestically.

As always, I welcome your views.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tiger Woods strange mishap a case study in what not to do

Whatever is going on in the personal life of Tiger Woods is probably best left private. And the media --including bloggers-- should be careful not to exploit it. But the bizarre incident over the weekend and the developments arising from it do provide a case study in what not to do in crisis communications.

For the record, in the early hours of Friday morning Woods for some unknown reason drove his SUV out of his Florida driveway and ran over a fire hydrant and struck a tree. A neighbour called 911. His wife is said to have rescued him from the car by smashing the rear window with a golf club. At some point Woods was lying on the ground. He was treated at hospital for lacerations and other injuries. But nothing life threatening.

What little we know, of course, has set off far more questions than answers. This is why Woods and his high-priced lawyers, publicists and handlers are likely being reminded that a real-life crisis is much harder to manage than a golf tournament.

Like nature, the media abhor a vacuum. Yet instead of saying something publicly within 12 hours of the incident, as most PR professionals say one should, Woods waited until Sunday to release a statement on his website.

To his credit, Woods showed much contrition and took all responsibility. Better late than never.

However, Woods for some reason has repeatedly delayed speaking to police about the incident. Lawyers say he is not obliged to speak to them beyond providing driver's licence number, vehicle registration and proof of insurance.

What the lawyers say make legal sense in a court of law. But it doesn't make common sense in the court of public opinion. All that has been accomplished is the raising of suspicions that Woods has something to hide.

Now Woods is at the centre of a media feeding frenzy.

What would have happened if Woods had simply put out a prompt statement of contrition early Saturday that included a pledge to co-operate with authorities fully? Sure Woods might have been promptly charged with the Florida equivalent of dangerous driving as he still may. But most of the frenzy would have been confined to one news cycle.

Unlike golf, media relations don't allow you to hit a provisional shot off the tee. Don't let the media get ahead of you.

And the winner is -- Stephen Harper.

In the ongoing controversy over House of Commons testimony by diplomat Richard Colvin that detainees turned over to Afghan authorities by Canada's military were likely tortured, it is clear the Opposition won Round 1.

However, it is also clear the Harper government won Round 2 by seizing the agenda of a special Commons committee. It remains to be seen who will win the next round.

But one clear loser has to be Defence Minister Peter MacKay. His tactics of immediately trying to discredit a well-respected -- and well-liked -- senior public servant have not been well received by most observers.

This has likely been aggravated by the minister who, in the second week of the controversy, acknowledged that his office had indeed received at least two of Colvin's e-mails when the minister had given the initial impression of the opposite.

Last March, MacKay was pubicly rebuked by an American general for claiming the Russians violated Canadian air space when in fact international treaties had been respected.

An ambitious politician can't afford many hits like that on his or her credibility. Prime Minister Stephen Harper likely has one less potential leadership rival to worry about.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ottawa using risky strategy with Afghanistan controversy

As most politicians are well aware, it is not the scandal itself that lands a government in the soup. It is the way the scandal is handled that is dangerous to a government.

Richard Nixon learned this the hard way. He likely would have kept his job as U.S. president in 1974 had he not tried to cover up Republican participation in the Watergate burglary.

The Harper government likely knows this as it tries to ward off the effects of parliamentary testimony by diplomat Richard Colvin. This is why its damage control strategy is risky.

Colvin testified before MPs last week that he tried repeatedly to warn his superiors that detainees the Canadian military turned over to Afghan authorities were virtually certain to be tortured. Colvin says his superiors were indifferent at best and went as far as telling him to keep quiet and not put anything in writing.

Defence Minister Peter McKay has been since attacking Colvin's testimony as not credible. In fact, he went as far as hinting that Colvin was playing into the hands of the Taliban.

But the government's strategy seems to be unraveling quickly. The minister has had to acknowledge Canada has stopped transfers of detainees to Afghan authorities at least four times because of suspicions. Groups like the Red Cross, and even a former diplomat from the European Union, have stepped forward to back up Colvin's testimony.

Even the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission,which is partially funded by Ottawa, has said in a published report detainees have been tortured.

It is interesting to note that the government has yet to produce any evidence to contradict Colvin's testimony. Nor has it actually denied that torture has taken place. Instead it has been concentrating its energy on discrediting Colvin as a witness.

This is how the Harper government likes to deal with embarrassing topics -- shoot the whistleblower.

It fired Linda Keen as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in December 2007 because she insisted on keeping the Chalk River nuclear reactor closed for safety concerns. As things have turned out, her concerns were well founded.

The government dealt with allegations that it offered money while in Opposition to the late MP, Chuck Cadman, to induce him to support the Conservatives in voting down the Liberal government in 2005 by attacking the reporter who broke the story. The Tories accused Tom Zytaruk of doctoring interview tapes.

An expert would later conclude those tapes were never tampered with. However, the Tories were successful in muddying the narrative of its critics until the Cadman story died.

Will it work this time? It just might because of public indifference about the fate of Afghan detainees.

Published reports of torture of Afghan detainees have been surfacing since February 2008. But the Canadian public has hardly been outraged.

For this controversy to continue to have legs, the Opposition is going to have to demonstrate to the public that innocent Afghan citizens have been detained and tortured in the same net as Taliban fighters because of Ottawa's negligence.

It also is going to have to show the general public that Canada's military mission has been hurt because of torture of innocent detainees has caused distrust among the Afghan people.

If the Opposition can make those two points clear in the public mind, the government will likely have to call a judicial inquiry, and accept some top resignations. But so far the Opposition has not been able to do that.

Of course, even if the government succeeds in warding off this controversy as it did with the Cadman affair, it will do so with considerable damage to its credibility at a time when Canadians have started to feel more comfortable with the Tories.

Stay tuned.

I look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toronto's race for mayor likely watched countrywide

As the low turnout usually attests, municipal elections around the country don't spark much interest beyond their jurisdictions.

But the race to succeed departing Toronto Mayor David Miller is already sparking considerable interest even though the formal campaign is still a year away. The communications strategies and spin doctoring will likely rival those of federal campaigns.

As we learned this month, George Smitherman, Ontario's deputy premier and minister of just about everything, has quit the provincial cabinet to campaign for the Toronto mayor's job.

He also has a widespread reputation as a bully. True or not, perception as they say in politics is reality. Smitherman is stuck with the bully tag.

There is wide expectation that Smitherman's chief rival for the job will be John Tory, former Ontario Conservative leader, and everybody's idea of a nice guy. Tory is also the guy who stood steadfast in support of faith funding of the school system. That's got to count for something among Toronto's ethnic voters.

Tory is currently working as an open-line host at CFRB. He hasn't announced his intentions as yet. But hey, a Toronto blueblood like Tory has to be looking beyond being an open-line host for the rest of his life.

So we likely have a classic battle shaping up between distinct personality types -- the Bully versus Mr. Nice Guy. The communications strategy and branding work for these two candidates-- providing Tory doesn't disappoint us by not running -- will be fascinating.

Normally a reputation as a bully would be a liability in politics at any level. This explains why Smitherman invited Linda Diebel, who writes insightful profiles for the Toronto Star, into his home to show off his softer side as just another married gay guy.

Toronto, with its chronic financial problems and labour disputes, may well be in a mood to elect a tough-guy major, with a human side of course.

Canada's largest city also has a habit when it elects mayors of alternating between colourful individuals like Mel Lastman and plain-vanilla personalities like David Miller.

Tory's handlers will be well aware of this and will have their guy doing some tough talk about civic unions and a better bang for the taxpayer's buck. Tory will be packaged as a nice guy who can be tough when the situation warrants.

It will be the battle of competing brands -- the bull with the softer side versus the nice guy who can be tough enough to get the job done. Of course if Tory doesn't run, Smitherman will be up against several lesser knowns who will split the vote against him.

Regardless of who runs against him, the race is already Smitherman's to lose. It will also be a great case study of how a high-profile candidate can be rebranded for another level of politics.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No time to delay fixing H1N1 miscues

By now it should be apparent to everyone in Canada there have been problems with the way governments have been communicating with the public during the current H1N1 crisis.

The flue pandemic may be far from over. But already there are widespread predictions of some sort of judicial inquiry when the pandemic is finally over to sort out who screwed up what at which level of government.

Such an inquiry would be a good idea when the time comes. But that doesn't mean Ottawa and the provinces should wait for an inquiry instead of doing some quick fixing.

After all, this could be a two-part pandemic. In 2003, public officials had to announce that SARS was back just a few weeks after pronouncing that crisis over.

And certainly this pandemic will not be our last health crisis.

In fairness, changes have already started. Ottawa's admission last week that it made a mistake in relying on just one supplier instead of two for vaccine was a good start. Contrition and candor never hurt when it is necessary to get a program back on track.

Ottawa seems to have made Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief medical officer of health, the lead spokesperson in this crisis instead of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. This is a good move. The honourable minister needs to do some more apprenticeship time.

Ottawa is also doing more prominent advertising featuring Dr. Butler-Jones and telling Canadians where they can find out more information about H1N1.

All these things should have been done earlier. But better late than never.

All levels of government should do something about confusion. Blasting information at people without any kind of organization or strategy doesn't automatically mean transparency.

As Dr. John Maxted, an associate director at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, noted recently, Public Health Agency of Canada may have been overzealous in trying to be transparent. There was often confusion in the way the agency was rushing information to the public only to see it change, he said.

There also have been inconsistencies in information doled out by different levels of government involved.

This would suggest a problem of which most public relations professionals are well aware. The professional communicators are being handed a communications plan and told to implement it instead of being involved in strategic planning.

There needs to be a common and strategic narrative with two or three key messages that will stand up from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and for several weeks. Confusing people or not caring about their comprehension is as bad as secrecy.

Let's hope there is time before the next public health crisis for all levels of governments and health bureaucrats to learn from the mistakes of this one.

As always, I welcome your views.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ottawa's flu messaging looks like a dog's breakfast

Just one weekly blog and so many communications issues to write about. As a result, let's deal with two this week -- Ottawa's handling of the swine flu pandemic and the sudden changes in the offices of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

First the flu crisis:

There is an adage in the PR and ad businesses that the clients ultimately get the kind of campaign or messaging they deserve. Put more succinctly, you can't polish up a turd.

If the client brief is confused, disorganized or less than forthcoming on key information, that will be reflected in the product. If there is internal infighting, that will show up. If there is a "Dr. No" personality with enough sway on the approval committee, even the most original and creative campaigns can be rendered dull and unoriginal.

So a nanosecond of sympathy please for the communications staff at Health Canada. It may not be their fault that Ottawa's communications efforts on the flu pandemic look like a dog's breakfast.

As Canadians are well aware, Ottawa is obsessed with secrecy no matter which party is elected. The culture is such that communications is the least valued of skills in the federal bureaucracy.

For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not see fit to create a senior position in its public affairs department until two months after last year's listeria crisis.

That's rights. The agency charged with maintaining public confidence in the food supply didn't think communications was a priority like say finance or human resources.

Clearly, not much has been learned since the listeria crisis.

A rookie health minister promises so many dosages of vaccine would be available one week, and then changes her story the next while trying to blame the supplier.

The Feds announce they are holding back production of a booster version of the H1N1 vaccine to allow its supplier to produce more of the regular version of the vaccine because it is safer for pregnant women. Then the World Health Organization announces the booster version is safe for pregnant women. Say what?

The Conservative government doesn't look much better in this. The Tories have spent millions on feel-good ads telling Canadians what a great job they are doing to stimulate the economy and next to nothing to tell us how to survive the flu pandemic beyond some pamphlets.

Health Minister Leona Aglukhag, because of her inexperience, is known as a scripted minister. She reads and recites what the bureaucrats put in front of her. Yet the Prime Minister is content to let his struggling minister sink or swim regardless of public anxiety.

Even the Prime Minister's spin doctors are far away from this crisis. John Williamson, the PM's new communications director, must be hidden in the Diefenbunker west of Ottawa or something.

Governments tend to do badly during times of national crisis. This will continue as long as Canadian bureaucrats remain so secretive and the Opposition is unable to hold the elected government accountable.

Now the Liberals:

For some strange reason, experienced political operatives in Canada continue to believe political parties can be saved by a messiah who can turn things around on the strength of his personality.

This is why political leaders are so often over handled by their strategists for fear of offending anybody and the media tend to cover Canadian politics like it is a personality contest among the party standard bearers.

The reality is that good campaigning -- like good marketing and good selling -- is good story telling. If the voters like what they're hearing they will vote for that message.

This is why Bill Clinton's handlers in the1992 campaign that made him president developed the famous slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," with the hope it would resonate with frustrated U.S. voters. It worked.

This is why Conservative strategists used a narrative that included a lower GST and a sleaze cleanup in Ottawa to turn a nebbish whose suits didn't fit him properly into the Prime Minister in 2006.

And of course the Liberals spun quite a narrative of yarns and promises in their famous Red Book of the 1993 campaign to great success.

Peter Donolo, the communications whiz who is now Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's chief of staff, knows about good narratives. But does the Liberal party? It is not enough to continue to remind people who brought public health care and unemployment insurance to Canada.

The Liberals, from the leader on down, need to take a hard look at what they stand for before any strategy will work, with or without Donolo.

Feel free to wade in on either issue or both.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anatomy of an issue

There was an interesting event Monday on Parliament Hill that said a lot about how government and the media respond to important issues.

No, I am not talking about the protestors who disrupted Question Period and got tossed out of the House of Commons. Nor am I talking about the Opposition attacking the government for pork barrel spending in Tory ridings.

The Liberals were holding a pension forum in which expert after expert painted a very grim picture for most of Canadians' retirement because of regulations and policies that are decades out of date. Some 11 million Canadians have no pension at all.

Canadians are just waking up to the fact they have very little protection of their pension benefits in the event of a bankruptcy like Nortel. The Nortel pension victims protested on Parliament Hill last week and they were out in force at Monday's pension forum.

There wasn't much coverage in the media. But a few months ago there would have been no coverage. The media are just beginning to pay attention to this issue after years of neglect. Pensions are now regarded as a looming crisis by the media.

Meanwhile, the government continued to dismiss the plight of the Nortel retirees as a provincial matter. However, Ottawa has begun to talk about updating pension rules after years of silence.

Pension experts have been warning for years of a crisis in retirement as baby boomers leave the work force. Yet this issue simply has not had any traction with either media or the politicians until recently. In fact, a parliamentary inquiry warned of a looming retirement disaster 25 years ago.

It takes film footage of Nortel retirees wondering how they they will survive in retirement for the media and government to finally pay attention.

Perhaps Canadians should be wondering why it take media and government so long to wake up to issues that affect so many.

As always, I welcome any comment on this issue.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stupid Tory Tricks

If the current Tory regime ever wins a majority government from the Canadian people it will be in spite of themselves.

That is the only conclusion one can take away from last week's episode involving the Tory logo being placed on a display cheque presented to a community group by Conservative MP Gerald Keddy as part of the government's stimulus program. What the hell were they thinking?

Just as the Tories seem to be on their way to solidifying their support and taking over as Canada's natural governing party from the Liberals, they become their own worst enemies with heavy-handed communications.

In the last election against the hapless Liberals led by Stephane Dion, the Tories likely squandered a majority because of a whole range of miscues that started with some party functionary trying to discredit the father of a fallen soldier.

It is almost like a serial killer who leaves clues behind in a secret wish to be caught. Or rookies who are simply not up to the task.

But let's be clear. Neither of the reasons above are true. For the most part, the Tories are clever messengers who know how to read the public zeitgeist and respond with answers that resonate.

Take some of the election promises that got them elected in the first place like reducing the GST or making Ottawa more accountable and transparent. In both cases, the Tories were able to transform abstract policy arguments that had been kicked around for years into tangible promises that voters understood and applauded.

So what goes wrong every time they are ready to consolidate power?

First of all, the Tories like to play things close to the line. Keep doing that and somebody within your ranks is bound to go too far.

In the case of the stimulus cheques, the Tories had been using mock display cheques with signatures of their MPs on them for several weeks. If anybody in the Opposition or the national media had noticed, they were keeping quiet.

With a barrage of taxpayer-funded feel-good television ads about economic recovery efforts that stopped short of being Tory election ads, the Opposition likely felt overwhelmed.

It wasn't until someone within the Tory message team decided those cheques would look better with a party logo that the Opposition and media felt comfortable pouncing not only on Keddy's logo but on all stimulus spending. That logo was an important tipping point.

The Opposition, sagging in the polls and depressed by a singing Prime Minister who was finally connecting with ordinary Canadians, has suddenly received an early Christmas present. And it was all because somebody thought it would be a good idea to push things just a little more, to the point of crossing the line.

Another cause for sudden outbreak of Stupid Tory Tricks might be simple cynicism. This government doesn't actually believe in communications. It practises propaganda by repeating half-truths often enough until people believe them and doing the opposite of what it preaches without explanation.

As much as such tactics may work with enough voters most of the time, it also makes your own party workers very cynical. As they say in politics, it is not your enemies who do you in, it is your friends.

Now the Tories are forced on the defensive about their spending all because someone decided to push the envelope a little more.

If you have a different take on this, I'd love to hear about it. As always, I welcome feedback.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Letterman's on-air apology shows contrition good tactic

Nothing speaks louder in television than a bump in the ratings, and the success David Letterman has had in navigating his way out of scandal should settle an argument about public relations once and for all: contrition works.

But it won't. That's because it is human nature to evade, make excuses, dissemble, play the blame game and lie. Far too many companies and governments will continue to resort to these tactics to control damage in the public eye.

It is because of such behaviour, that expressions of remorse, full disclosure and other elements of contrition work so well in public relations.

The public is so used to cover up and blame shifting, that simply telling the truth and accepting responsibility are seen as refreshing and therefore creditable. PR consultants will always tell their clients to tell the truth because it makes tactical sense.

Consider a couple of recent cases in Canada.

In 2008, 22 people died from eating cold cuts processed by Maple Leaf Foods. To his credit, Michael McCain, the Maple Leaf CEO, owned up to the fact that the meats were contaminated with listeria at his company's plant in North York.

Maple Leaf took full responsibility and began taking immediate steps to ensure such a tragedy never happens again. Maple Leaf also moved to expedite settlement of lawsuits and actually supported increased regulation of the meat processing industry.

No excuses. No evasion. No shifting of blame. With the exception of a Maple Leaf vice-president who told a tasteless joke in public about listeria last August, the company's conduct has been exemplary. Now the company's most important asset, its reputation, is on the mend.

Let's contrast this approach with how Ottawa handled the case of Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud.

This is the Toronto woman who found herself stranded in Kenya for three months because she didn't resemble her passport photo in the opinion of an airline employee and subsequently, a Canadian diplomatic official.

After months of stonewalling, Ottawa was forced by the Federal Court to conduct a DNA test. That DNA established once and for all that she was not an imposter, as Ottawa had been claiming, and the single mother was finally cleared and reunited with her son.

When this case first became public, the feds could have simply announced they were investigating and arranging emergency travel documents so that woman could return to Canada for interviews and a DNA test. Instead Ottawa went on the offensive and did everything it could to discredit Mohamud in the media and in court.

All the while, Ottawa maintained it labeled this single mother an imposter after a thorough investigation. Yet the government's own written evidence shows that wasn't thecase.

Mohamud flunked a civics quiz in an interview with a Canadian embassy official, according to federal court filings. That prompted suspicion in the mind of a Canadian embassy official.

The suspicion may have been justified. But rather than establish the truth with DNA, Canadian officials handed the woman over to Kenyan authorities who imprisoned her before allowing her to stay in Nairobi on bail.

That's right. A Canadian citizen was charged and imprisoned by a foreign government because Canadian officials were unwilling to order a DNA test and then tried to lie their way out of the controversy.

As the controversy continues -- the woman has filed a lawsuit -- Ottawa continues to dig itself in deeper. This ugly controversy is far from over and most Canadians are wondering to themselves if the case would have been different had Mohamud come from a different racial background.

In this case, an honest mistake may have been originally made. But Ottawa's tactics will always be remembered as an ugly example of what not to do in reputation management.

As always, I am eager to receive your comments.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Can Iggy be saved? Yes, (with changes)

The change of fortune for Michael Ignatieff in six months truly is a remarkable development in Canadian politics. Little over five months ago, many Canadians thought he was poised to become the next prime minister of Canada.

Today, there is speculation about how long he will keep his current job as Liberal leader while a disconnect with the voters continues to grow.

But before we get into whether the Opposition Leader can be saved as a political asset, let's look at some background.

Remember that hideous picture of Stephen Harper in leather in the summer of 2005 at the Calgary Stampede? Depending on the beholder, Harper looked either like a gay caballero or a serial killer in drag. During all the ridicule, there was a running debate about how long Harper would keep his job as opposition leader.

As we know, Harper did keep his job and went on to become Prime Minister in less than a year after reorganizing the Office of the Opposition Leader and sharpening his messages.

Most of us have forgotten about the trouble Jean Chretien had in the OLO in his first two years as Liberal leader. Chretien went through almost as many communications directors as Harper did,and the Tories were maintaining a lead in the polls. This is why Chretien went outside the party and brought in Jean Pelletier, a former mayor of Quebec, to reorganize his office.

So what Iggy is now going through is really nothing new. Most successful Opposition leaders have had to go through a crisis or two before becoming Prime Minister.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Iggy has made was not making Alex Himelfarb his chief of staff when he had the chance. The prospect of a former clerk of the Privy Council joining the OLO made Iggy's inner circle nervous. The Liberal leader chose to recruit inside the party when he should have gone outside like Chretien did.

Every successful political leader as a Cardinal Richelieu type behind the curtains providing Machiavellian advice and acting as the SOB who does the things a leader cannot afford to do.

Brian Mulroney had Derek Burney. Chretien had Pelletier. Harper has Guy Giorno. Pierre Trudeau had Jim Coutts. Having a Cardinal Richelieu figure in the background allows a leader to concentrate on connecting with the voters and doing the vision thing without having to watch his flank. Iggy has to find a Cardinal Richelieu of his own.

Recently the London Observer was wondering how Iggy could go from being one of the most articulate writers and pundits in the Western world to just another retail politician spouting the usual cautious banalities and bromides. Whether this is because of the advice he is getting or that he has yet to become comfortable in a politician's skin, Ignatieff needs to develop a foreful presence and take a few stands. He could start by mounting a spirited defence of Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer who is under siege by the government.

Reciting standard Liberal rhetoric just won't cut it. Political communications today is about substance as well as style. You need content to go with the verbal judo.

As always, I look forward to your comments on whether Iggy can be saved.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Issue management is a Tory specialty

When I began this blog I had intended not to dwell on the current Canadian government two weeks in a row. But recent developments in Canadian politics are just too compelling to pass up.

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders were trooping to New York to speak to the UN General Assembly. All that is except Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He headed to Oakville, Ont., to a Tim Horton's to celebrate the repatriation of corporate control of the donut chain from the U.S.

Historians might wonder about Harper's motives of travelling back to Canada for an easy photo-0p sandwiched between an historic session of the UN and an all important G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Indeed, Harper could be in for some ridicule in future years.

But Harper apparently didn't care. The visit to Tim Horton's was about far more than a double double or Timbits. It was intended to remind the Conservatives' core voters that the Prime Minister hasn't forgotten who sent him to Ottawa.

Much about Harper's appeal to Conservative voters is about sticking it to the swells just as Richard Nixon was elected to the U.S. presidency in 1968 on an anti-intellectual/anti-elitist ticket.

Harper was elected on a plain vanilla, ordinary folks agenda and his trip to Tim's was part of that. That visit also demonstrates how good Harper and his government are in issue management.

Four years ago in the months before Harper formed the federal government, Canadian politics was dominated by the quest for a national daycare system, better healthcare and the Kelowna accord for native self-government. Today those issues have disappeared from the media.

The visible issues now are crackdown on crime (even though the national crime rate continues to decline), ware on Afghanistan, and keeping the Arctic safe from the paws of the big Russian bear.

Daycare, health and a better deal for aboriginals are all urban liberal issues. Support for the armed forces, law and order and standing up for Canada are nice tangible issues to appease small town Canada and the core Tory vote.

The healthcare system may be fiscally unsustainable as it continues to eat up the revenues of the provincial governments. Excessive waiting times are accepted as just a part of Canadian life. But the government doesn't want to talk about stuff like that because historically, the Liberals do better with health and softer social issues than the Tories do.

This government will be in power as long as it can control the public agenda.

In the fairness department, let's look at the Liberals' messaging trouble next week.

As always, I'm eager to hear what you think. I'm grateful to Don Newman for weighing in on last week's post. For those who are receiving this posting by email, scroll down to the Spindoctor link to directly connect to the blog. Adding your comments is simple: just enter in the comment box provided.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Success in Canadian politics depends on who sets the frame

Now that Parliament is off for a week because of the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, let's have a look at some interesting developments in Canadian politics.

Last Friday the Harper government survived a confidence vote thanks to support from the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP. So a prime minister, who waxed indignant not too long ago about the Liberals forming an odious coalition with the separatists and socialists, was propped up by, well, separatists and socialists.

Indeed the Conservative spin machine was still running television ads last weekend attacking Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with the flimsy-at-best accusation that he was part of the short-lived coalition last winter of the Liberals, under Stephane Dion, and the NDP and Bloc.

Is Harper or his party embarrassed by last Friday's developments? Probably not. Will the Conservatives have to do some quick damage control because many Canadians will see them as hypocrites? Again probably not.

This is because modern political tactics don't have much to do with truth. Politics in the 21st century is driven by something called framing.

Framing works like this: because the public and journalists alike are bombarded with information in the current 24-hour news cycle, we all have to resort to stereotypes and preconceived notions to process and make sense of it all.

So if a political party, with the money to purchase pre-election advertising, can make a claim, true or not, often enough, the public will form an impression or "frame". The frame becomes the mental template through which a particular issue is commonly viewed.

Even when your opponent vehemently denies the frame, the inadvertent effect is to repeat the negative and therefore reinforce the frame much like good chess players try to "fork" their opponent. This is when an opponent is forced into a position in which he or she must lose something in order to respond.

The side that gets its version of the truth on the record first usually controls the frame. And it takes a very dramatic development to break that frame.

It will be interesting to see what the Liberals can come up with to counter the Tory frame next week when Parliament resumes.

The Liberals had been the victim of the widely-held frame that they would support the minority government no matter what because they were terrified of an election. But now it's the NDP's turn to face the same frame. The Liberals have announced they will no longer support the Harper government and will look to defeat it at the earliest opportunity. In other words, Ignatieff was able to take a noose off his own neck and slip in on the neck of NDP leader Jack Layton.

Nice move. Next week we can watch Ignatieff try to do the same with Harper. Like much of our electioneering techniques, issue framing is imported from the U.S. It was really perfected by the Republicans.

Has the time come to examine what framing is doing to the integrity of Canadian politics? Perhaps the Canadian political class should be asking this. Look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Michael Bryant case shows Wikipedia waits for nobody

Most of Canada by now has read and heard about the horrific traffic incident involving Michael Bryant and a cyclist who died as a result on the second last day of August.

The former Ontario Attorney General is facing serious charges and no doubt wondering how he can save his career.

The purpose of this post is not to speculate on what actually happened. But it became immediately clear this bizarre and tragic story is likely to become a case study in reputation management.

There was an interesting development on the night of the incident at about 10 p.m. in the Yorkville district of Toronto, well past most media deadlines.

Journalists converging on the scene needed a few hours to piece together what happened and most media were reluctant at first to identify Bryant as the driver without confirmation by the police.

But at some point in that overnight period Wikipedia, the online reference service that depends on voluntary submissions, went ahead and identified Bryant and provided a rough account without police confirmation. At one point CBC Radio actually read the Wikipedia entry.

There is a lesson here to professional crisis communicators: monitor Wikipedia with the rest of the media immediately.

Also interesting was that once Bryant had called a lawyer, he called a high-profile public relations firm, Navigator, and retained them immediately. Smart move. The court of public opinion is just as important as the court of law when it comes to reputation management.

Navigator's involvement seems to have made a huge difference. By the second day of coverage, virtually all media were focused on the background of the man who died in the incident, including his brushes with the law and the fact that he was ordered by police to leave the apartment of his ex-girl friend in an enraged state the same night.

By the third day, Bryant was looking more like a victim who was only fleeing an incident of road rage. The story had been professionally reframed.

Sure, all relevant information about this case would have become public eventually. However, by the time it did, he case would have been cast in the public mind with Bryant as a sole aggressor.

I am interested in what fellow communicators think about this case. Please let me know what you think about Navigator's involvement.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SpinDoctor hosts debate on communications issues

Most people who own a computer travel to cyberspace for everything from mundane information like movie times to the news of the day. And increasingly they are looking to social media for discussion of professional issues.

SpinDoctor is a new weekly blog for all those who are interested in professional communications issues. Whether an issue involves how the media handle a story or how a corporation dealt with a serious crisis, SpinDoctor wants to encourage critical discussion of how we can communicate better.

The author of SpinDoctor is Gord McIntosh, an Ottawa public affairs consultant who has worked in several media as a journalist. In addition to running a consulting practice in government and public affairs, Gord works as a media trainer and ghost writer.

Some postings will involve professional advice to communicators on how to deal with a tricky problem like a gun shy client. Other postings will look at actual case studies of what works and what doesn't. Still others might look at how the PR industry and the media are serving the public.

Whatever the topic, your comments are more than welcome. Let's debate communications and media issues.

Gord McIntosh

Brief commercial message: You can find SpinDoctor through my 110percent.ca website If you have an interest in exploring blogging as a business tool, I'd encourage you to visit the BlogDoctor page. It's part of a new service offering which also includes MagDoctor.
Cheers, GMC