PM Harper takes communications strategy to new level
There are an estimated 1,500 communications staffers working in ministers’ offices and departments, including 87 in the PMO and PCO.
By LAURA RYCKEWAERT
Monday, November 21, 2011
Since the days of Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker, the federal communications bureaucracy has gradually swelled to “huge” proportions, and while this growth didn’t start with the majority governing Conservative Party, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has certainly “changed the rules,” say some political watchers.
On CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti on November 1, CTV’s Craig Oliver, speaking from over 50 years of journalistic experience covering the rein of 10 prime ministers, said in the last 30 years, the size of “media control” operations has greatly expanded.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Oliver said Mr. Diefenbaker—who was Prime Minister when Mr. Oliver kicked-off his reporting career—and Mr. Pearson typically went on the road with one communications person, “usually somebody who’s a former reporter who’s kind of bemused to find himself on the other side of the line.”
Mr. Oliver said on The Current, “There’s a whole infrastructure at every level of every department, of people whose job it is to manipulate and massage media. Highly paid people…hundreds of people. Their only job every day is try to manipulate a message.”
Mr. Oliver said the job of these hundreds of staffers is “massaging a message” to get media to see a story the same way the government does: “They want to influence what we’re saying, the approach we take to a story…They want to have the story cast in a way they want.”
The Hill Times went through the government electronic directory service to get a rough idea of how many communications staffers—people paid to help craft and disseminate any given government message—currently work in the public service, ministerial offices, the PMO and the PCO. In all, there are currently around 1,500 communications staffers working in government offices and departments across Canada, including 87 in the PMO and PCO.
It’s important to stress that that figure is a very rough estimate. The specific roles and structure of government communications aren’t eagerly explained; though correspondence staffers were excluded from the list, corporate, internal, and web communications staff all made the cut.
When asked about the size of Canada’s communications bureaucracy, Associate Director of Communications and PMO spokesperson Andrew MacDougall said he “couldn’t speak” to the numbers, certainly not historically.
“Each department would have to speak to its own communications staff and size and complement. That’s not something for me to comment on,” said Mr. MacDougall.
Scott Reid, a former Senior Advisor And Director of Communications to Prime Minister Paul Martin who is now a Co-Host of CTV’s National Affairs and a Principal at Feshuck.
Reid, said between 1993 to 2003, under a Liberal majority government, he saw a gradual increase in the size of communications staff in government departments and agencies.
“At the political level, there really were no formal positions known as Director of Communications in the early ’90s. By 2003, every Minister had both a Communications Director and a Press Secretary…you saw changes of that kind happen, all of which are clear indications that the emphasis on communications was increasing at both the political and bureaucratic level,” said Mr. Reid.
Mr. Reid said in 2004, with the reintroduction of a minority government to Canada, “new tactics and strategies” in communications began emerging.
“You could see it happening under us as well and it was deliberate, and the change that happens is this: you must be more disciplined in your communications when you’re in a minority situation because you’re in a much more perilous situation, from a political standpoint,” said Mr. Reid.
“If you’re in a minority circumstance and you’re faced with the constant threat of being defeated, you have to be much more focused, much more rigorous, much more centralized. It’s a word people don’t like, but it’s a reality,” said Mr. Reid.
Since the Conservative Party came into minority power in 2006, the topic of government control over communications has been a hot one, particularly among members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery where the consequences of these changes are most apparent.
Mr. Reid said the changes and gradual emphasis on communications he witnessed during Liberal governance, “became exponentially intensified under the Conservatives.”
Mr. Oliver echoed his sentiments: “He (Stephen Harper) has changed the ball game, he really has.”
Apparently used as far back as Mr. Harper’s 2003 OLO, not long after coming to power Mr. Harper implemented the use of government-wide media event proposals, MEPs, which clamped down control on interactions between caucus members and the public.
The MEP form includes sections like “Desired Sound Bite” and “Strategic Objective,” and requires ultimate approval from the PMO or PCO before the event can take place.
Around two months after being elected, Mr. Harper put an end to the Cabinet meetings’ “ins,” and “outs,” and, as has become par for the course since, does not send out notices when the full Cabinet meets.
Soon after Mr. Harper won power, the Prime Minister’s staff started deciding which reporters could ask questions, skipping those they suspected weren’t in the government’s favour. Media access to the Prime Minister and his caucus, in general, has become minimal, with MPs and ministers kept on a short, silent leash.
“I think it’s tougher for reporters these days to get to something…I’m not so sure you’re getting the information you want, but you’re getting the information that they want to give you and nothing more,” said Liberal New Brunswick Senator Jim Munson, who worked as a reporter for around 34 years—24 of which he spent at CTV—before becoming Director of Communications in “the last year or so” of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s mandate.
Interestingly, Mr. Harper’s new ball game, which has changed both political and departmental communications, seems to contradict the government’s stance stated in multiple Throne Speeches and the government’s own communications policy, introduced in 2006.
"[The communications policy] It reads a little like a fairy tale…it basically says that institutions in the Government of Canada must be visible, accessible and accountable to the public they serve…and I think more and more we don’t see that. It’s almost impossible to interview a public servant these days, and the media relations people are gate-keepers who deny access to subject matter experts more often than not,” said Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill in an interview with The Hill Times.
While these new rules in the back-and-forth game between media and communications, it seems agreed, came in with Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, some say opposition parties are starting to show signs of jumping on board.
“I would argue that other parties are following that [Mr. Harper’s] recipe. Because one main message being repeated by everybody, it gives the impression that that Party is very disciplined and is ready for power. I think the NDP is going in that direction as well, now that they’re getting closer to power,” said Joël-Denis Bellavance, a La Presse reporter who has been working on the Hill for the last 17 years.
Mr. Bellavance said during the last election campaign the NDP followed “the Conservative philosophy” when it came to protecting first time NDP candidate Ruth Ellen Brosseau from controversy, following her campaign-time trip to Vegas. Mr. Bellavance said the NDP was “protecting her and limiting access, not even telling us (the national media) when there would be media availabilities at some point.”
And, having finally achieved their much sought-after majority in the May election, Mr. Bellavance said he’s already noticed some signs of the government easing up their tight hold over communications. On a November trip to Cannes, France, Mr. Harper reportedly agreed to take eight questions from reporters, double the amount he usually allows.
But not everyone is so optimistic about a change in tides.
Mr. Reid said while the minority government atmosphere was a “catalyst” for these communications changes, the Party’s “cultural values” are an important aspect that hasn’t changed—Mr. Harper and his Conservatives see the media as out to get them.
Moreover, Mr. Reid said, he doesn’t see any pressure coming from Hill reporters to get limitations on media access reversed.
"In my view, the [Parliamentary Press] Gallery behaves like sort of hand shy dogs, you know, the Prime Minister has a rolled up newspaper, he waves it in their direction and they just kind of cower. I find it startling, to be honest,” said Mr. Reid.email@example.com