a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mistake by the lake should tell us something

Think back to the summer of 2005 when Stephen Harper was still the leader of the Opposition.

Remember a particularly hideous photo that was taken at the Calgary Stampede in which Harper was wearing a leather vest that was too tight and a goofy looking hat?

He was between communications directors at the time. And the photo clearly demonstrated there was no one in his entourage with either the cachet or experience to say "Stephen, lose the look."

In the months following, Harper showed much more communications savvy in front of the cameras and became prime minister as a result.

The predicament Harper is now in over the costs of the G8 and G20 summits, in particular the supposed need for an artificial lake in the Toronto media centre, should also be telling us something about his government's communications ability, or lack of it.

When first reported, the cost was $1 million to put an artificial lake about four blocks north of the real thing. Subsequently, this was revised to $57,000 out of the total media centre budget of $1.9 million.

Even at $57,000, voters across the country may think the fake lake is a mistake. But it's interesting that the government's huge communications machine let several news cycles lapse while the price was being reported at seven figures.

This could point to several things going on behind the scenes. In the past 12 months leading up to the summits, the government has been keeping details of costs quiet. Is it possible their own communications people were not fully briefed?

Even the government's ministers seemed to be blindsided when the story broke. Did the summit expenditures get a full review at cabinet, or just inside the Prime Minister's Office?

In addition to the fake lake, the Tories have not been able to defend a whole raft of summit expenditures that smell like pre-election largesse in rural Ontario. G8 leaders are unlikely to venture outside a guarded compound.

Perhaps if the Tories had released details of summit spending gradually over several months they wouldn't now be facing a public backlash.

It has been mentioned in this blog before but it's worth repeating. For a government obsessed with controlling its messaging, it doesn't seem to communicate about is own affairs very well,
particularly when things don't go as planned.

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