05/31/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Andrew MacDougall, Ex PM Adviser, Tells Government To Stop Hiding Behind Its Inbox


We’ve all experienced the maddening frustration of not being able to reach a company’s customer service staff over the phone when you have an urgent question or problem.

That’s if you’re lucky enough to find a customer service number, of course; too often you’re now forced to email your query into the cyber-void and pray for a response.

A similar kind of frustration is brewing in Ottawa, where political communications staffers are rarely on the other end of the government’s 1-800 lines when a reporter calls. Indeed, some communications staff would rather stab themselves in the eye with a fork than pick up the phone and talk to a reporter.

I understand the impulse, having had my eyes gouged out by the press on more than a few occasions. I, too, resorted to email too often. Let’s face it, having conversations with veteran reporters like Tonda MacCharles on subjects like the Supreme Court, or Terry Milewski on the F-35, is no one’s idea of a good time.

But talking to reporters is part of the gig. And it’s in the government’s interest to stop hiding behind its inbox.

There isn’t much goodwill left between the press and the Conservative government; eight years of trench warfare has left a battlefield full of bad blood and blown relationships. Here’s a partial list of why the media’s knickers are in a twist:

- Their access to politicians, staff and officials has been limited.

- They no longer get to loiter outside the cabinet room.

- They resent being made to go on lists to ask questions.

- They often wait around all day for answers only to be emailed two talking points that don’t address their questions. 

Will any of this change? Nyet, comrades. The government’s approach to media relations is set in stone and, say what you will about the particulars, you can’t argue with the results at the ballot box.

That said, the government should focus some attention on that last item. Picking up the phone will build relationships, help explain its policy better and generate more balanced coverage. 

The siren song of email

Doing government communications in the 24/7 news environment without email would be impossible. But there are several reasons why email can’t be the only tool in the communications toolbox.

First, email is antiseptic, while political communication is blood sport. Trying to explain complicated policy through emailed talking points is like trying to assemble a car using only an Allen key from IKEA: you might be able to bolt it together, but it won’t drive very far.

Second, email breeds superficiality. A talking point is what you want to be clipped saying, it’s not everything you need to know. Relying on emailed talking points encourages staff to be an inch-deep, where political issues chart at greater depths.

Third, email is back and white, where politics is shaded in grey. The number 1 job for a political communicator is to add context, whether that’s history, motive or contrast. And context is most effectively delivered in person.

Lastly, email is impersonal. You’ll never get to know what makes a reporter tick by emailing them. Like all relationships, you have to build trust before you can work well together, and that means @'s and .coms are out and coffees and conversations are in.

The proof is in the pudding

My recollection is that we got some of our best press as a government when we were on international trips, carting around the same Ottawa gallery types who loved to hammer us back home.

The reason? It certainly wasn’t the “food” on the Airbus. It was contact. We had to deal with the press face-to-face, in close quarters. If they had questions, we had to get them answers. We lived with them on the road, so avoiding them wasn’t an option.

This also meant we had to know our stuff better and we had to apply some emotional intelligence to reporters who were being pressured by their desks to come up with more and more coverage to justify the expense of the trip. In short, the contact built understanding.

It also made us better at our jobs. Hard as it might be for today’s political staff to imagine, it used to be like that — all the time — when dealing with reporters. If you wanted your side in the paper, you had to get a living, breathing human on the phone and deliver a comment.

You have to play the game

At the end of the day, a reporter has to fill column inches or airtime and they’ll do it with or without you.

And if you wait until the end of the day to email answers to a question that hasn’t been asked, you shouldn’t be surprised when you appear in two lines at the end of the story, or don’t appear at all.

You might not like their line of inquiry, but that’s when you’ve got to dig deep in your bag of media relations tricks and fight them to a draw. The chances of a reporter getting it wrong are infinitely higher if you don’t get in their ear and whisper your own words of wisdom.

For a government that understands the value of defining others before they define themselves incredibly well (Exhibit A: Stéphane “Not a Leader” Dion; Exhibit B: Michael “Just Visiting” Ignatieff), the current government has, in not engaging constructively with the press, ceded too much of the government’s public image to the views of the ink-stained hordes.

“Engaging constructively” doesn’t mean giving the press everything they want. It means engaging with them substantively and participating in debate. It’s means goading and cajoling, pushing and pulling, pleading and reasoning. Clicking “send” just won’t cut it.

So, feed and water the press. Fill the void. You won’t win every fight, or even half the fights, but it’s a better strategy than taking your ball and going home. If you’re going to get killed, you might as well die trying.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.

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