a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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painted a very grim picture for most of Canadians' retirement because of regulations and policies that are decades out of date.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.