a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.

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