a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.