a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why didn’t Oda tell the truth in the 1st place?

Here’s a news flash that provides questions instead of answers.

Over the weekend, Conservative MPs were issued talking points that say Bev Oda was out of the country when her office received a report from the Canadian International Development Agency recommending approval of $7 million in funding for Kairos, the international aid group.

So the Minister of International Co-operation ordered her office staff to insert the word ``not’’ in front of ``approve’’ in the final line of the report and use her signature stamp. At least this is the government’s latest version of what happened in Oda’s run-in with parliamentary procedure.

Had the minister simply given that explanation to a Commons committee in December, would she now be in danger of becoming the first cabinet minister in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament? Not.

Instead, she has had several stories. First she tried to claim she didn’t know how a document bearing her signature came to be altered. Then she claimed Kairos didn’t fit the aims of CIDA when senior staff of the agency under her charge were recommending approval.

And most laughably, Oda claimed funding was denied after ``due diligence’’ by CIDA.

Oda has already been rebuked by the Commons Speaker over this affair. Telling fibs in the House of Commons is a line that is not supposed to be crossed.

This is because truthful information is the oxygen that feeds parliamentary democracy.

Even if Oda somehow remains a member of cabinet when this nasty affair finally ends, her political career is effectively over. No one is going to take seriously a disgraced minister who reportedly lied to a parliamentary committee and tried to pin her own deeds on civil servants reporting to her.

Why didn’t the minister simply tell the truth in the first place since she was within her rights to reject a recommendation from the civil service?

Both she and the government obviously didn’t expect the document to surface publicly, which it did thanks to an Access to Information request. But they should have since the rules of disclosure are pretty clear.

In fairness, this is not the first government to think it owns the truth. But considering this government got itself elected by promising increased accountability, the whole affair is likely to leave a stench.

Maybe this is a case of some kind of hidden death wish because every time this government is within sight of majority rule, it starts shooting at its own feet.

But more likely, this is a sign that official Ottawa needs a reminder that truth isn’t just an inconvenience to be overcome.

We may get that reminder before this affair is over.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

VANOC used aggressive media tactics

By now most of us have an opinion whether John Furlong should have done more to prevent a fatal accident on the luge track at last year’s Vancouver Olympics. There isn’t much point in passing judgment here on the man who was head of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

But there is a sidebar issue on VANOC’s media relations tactics.

The CBC’s Fifth Estate obtained a sensitive e-mail from the B.C. Coroner’s Office through the province’s Freedom of Information law. In the e-mail, Furlong alerted colleagues that VANOC had received a letter in which the track’s designer expressed concern about speeds being recorded on it.

This concern was made and passed on to VANOC officials almost a year before a young Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died instantly after hitting a metal pole at 145 km/h on the track.

Furlong passed on the designer’s concerns in an e-mail to senior VANOC officials, including legal counsel, and said the letter was ``a warning that the track is, in their view, too fast and someone could get badly hurt.’’

He added: ``I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing.’’

No one disclosed this e-mail after the tragedy. In fact, Furlong said after the crash there were no safety concerns raised about the track.

So how did Furlong’s media adviser handle this?

Renee Smith-Valade, VANOC’s former vice-president of communications, managed to get a hold copies of the documents in the Fifth Estate’s possession, including the Furlong e-mail. She then released the material before the Fifth Estate could go to air to other media, namely CTV, the host broadcaster of the Olympics, and the Globe and Mail, a corporate cousin. Neither disclosed how they obtained the material.

It was a pre-emptive move designed to rob the Fifth Estate of its scoop and therefore deaden the impact. Or as Smith-Valade put it, it was a manoeuvre to present ``a more balanced view and protect VANOC’s reputation.’’

Smith-Valade was likely hoping the turmoil in the Middle East would distract public attention away from the issue. Did the tactic work?

Reports by the Fifth Estate have brought down cabinet ministers. Smith-Valade was trying to dilute the Fifth Estate’s impact by making the issue old news by the time its program aired, which wasn’t until Feb. 11.

But it is hard to say whether the move worked. VANOC media tactics became a story themselves. As a result, other media such as the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star weighed in with harsh commentary about Furlong and Smith-Valade’s tactic.

In fact, the tactic might have the opposite effect that what was intended.

The best media relations tactic probably would have been to disclose the safety concerns a year ago and take the lumps then. Or better still, ensure that the track was fully safe in the first place.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

CRTC chairman: Nobody deserves undermining by tweet

Thanks to Twitter and our tweeting Industry Minister, we can all add CRTC chairmanship to the list of least desirable jobs in Canada along with chief fundraiser for the Liberal party, coach of the Ottawa Senators or CFL commissioner.

Ottawa has every legal right to take issue with any decision by the CRTC and over-ride it through cabinet order.

Many Canadians would applaud Industry Minister Tony Clement for standing ready to overturn a CRTC decision to implement usage-based billing for internet customers.

A case can be made for usage-based billing now that consumers are downloading feature-length movies from the internet. But a case can just as easily be made not to suddenly saddle people with huge cost increases without warning. There was no surprise the CRTC was facing a public backlash.

But the way Clement chose to tell the CRTC – over Twitter – showed a lack of class. The head of a federal regulatory agency deserves something more than 140 characters over Twitter. So do Canadians.

Clement made it plain that if the CRTC didn’t change its position on usage-based billing, cabinet would do it for them. But he also twisted the knife a little further by tweeting that he was ``looking forward’’ to remarks by CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein before a Commons committee the following day.

Not only was Clement publicly undermining the commission, he was doing some old fashioned bullying – something von Finckenstein didn’t deserve.

After all the CRTC was only following a written directive by Clement’s predecessor, Maxime Bernier. Bernier, the first industry minister when the Conservatives assumed office in 2006, ordered the CRTC to put market forces above the public interest.

The CRTC was just following government policy when it approved usage-based billing. Then Clement figured out which way the wind was blowing and got on Twitter.

Canadians shouldn’t have to guess what the government is going to do in the future – or what the minister is going to tweet. The government should take the trouble to formally spell out policy.

Ironically, the Federal Court dealt Clement a stinging rebuke a day after the minister pushed around the CRTC. The court ruled a 2009 cabinet order that allowed Globalive to launch its Wind Mobile wireless service was in contravention of Canada’s limits on foreign ownership in the telecommunications sector.

The CRTC had originally ruled Globalive was an Egyptian-controlled company. The government ruled Globalive was Canadian controlled without bothering to clarify or change existing law.

Now it is the government’s turn to be pushed around – this time by the courts. Courts don’t tweet.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Election if necessary, but not necessarily an election

Here we go again. We’re in the midst of more excitement about a pending election nobody claims to want.

All party leaders have been fanning out in what they insist is not campaigning. The two major parties are busy blasting each other with attack ads. And the media are playing their part by acting like fight promoters.

Yup. It sure looks like an election is imminent. Or maybe not.

We are witnessing what is fast becoming a standard part of minority government – the pre-campaign. Pre-campaigns are good for market-testing potential ballot questions. Or, in the event of near-deadlock in the polls, a pre-campaign is good for testing for cracks in the other guy’s support.

Both of these reasons are factors in this current pre-campaign.

The polls haven’t changed much since the 2008 election. As they stand now, an election would produce a Parliament not terribly different from the current standings.

Should there be a shift in the Conservatives’ favour during the pre-campaign, we can be sure the governing party will find a way to engineer an election, regardless of what the Prime Minister is saying.

It will not be so easy for the Liberals to cash in on a shift in their favour, or signs of one pending. Historically, any surge in Liberal support has been at the expense of the NDP.

There is a very real possibility the New Democrats could wind up propping up the government in the budget vote this spring.

Still it might be useful for the Liberals to force a confidence vote in which the NDP has to bail out the Tories. The Liberals may also need the NDP to back up the government if their strategy backfires. Michael Ignatieff’s ultimatum that the March budget contain a rollback of phased-in cuts to business taxes or the Liberals will vote against it doesn’t have much wiggle room.

As for possible ballot questions, the pre-campaign will be risky for Liberals and Conservatives. The two majors seem to have both decided to lock horns over tax cuts for business – at least for now.

After two years in the current mandate, the Tories really don’t have much to put in the store window.

The stimulus plan will be past tense by the time voters do head to the polls. The Tories at first thought they would be able to count on bragging rights for replacing the number of jobs lost during the recession.

However, Statistics Canada has played spoiler by restating post-recession employment creation numbers. As a result, the government is 30,000 jobs short of making that claim.

Canadians are less than enthralled over the F-35 purchase. The Tories’ fear mongering over an evil coalition of Opposition parties hasn’t produced the results they had been seeking. The law and order initiatives are at saturation point. The character assassination ads may be wearing thin. And there has been nothing but damage control in foreign affairs.

So the rebranding of continued tax cuts for business as a job creation initiative might turn out to be a good move for the Tories as long as they are able to define the debate. After all, the Liberals did support the phased-in tax cuts for business in 2007. Business taxes now stand at 16 per cent. The Tories want to move them down one more percentage point in 2012 to give Canada the lowest business taxes in the G7.

As for the Liberals, the science of economics is on their side. Cutting taxes in a deficit situation is really spending money you don’t have. If the Liberals are able to frame business tax cuts as a deficit enlarger, the Tories have a problem.

They can also argue low business taxes alone don’t automatically create jobs. Otherwise Ireland, with business taxes of 12.5 per cent, would have an abundance of new jobs.

The Liberals can truthfully say they supported tax cuts when there was a budget surplus. But that detail could easily be lost in all the noise made by the Tory spin machine.

Still, the Tories don’t feel comfortable enough to spell out exactly how they will slay the deficit by the promised 2015. So they are vulnerable on the deficit.

About the last thing the Conservatives can be accused of is being fiscal conservatives. The Tory cheque writers have been busier than the spin machine.

We are about to witness a spectacular issue framing war between the major parties.