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.