22 January 2005

Outside the Box - "Experience counts"

When Greg Locke was editing The Independent, I wound up writing a column there for a few months. It was a rich time with the change of government and the early steps of a new administration.

Margaret Wente's column stuck me in a bunch of ways, not the least being a recollection that her comments sounded all too familiar. On a snowy Saturday morning, I have found the comments - at least a description of the original - in a column I did for The old Indy. Maybe now you'll understand why I chuckled a bit at Danny Williams "defence" after Margaret's little diatribe. There is a karma in politics and those with experience understand it. Your actions today will influence what happens later.
For those of you who can't recall, this Macleans fiasco came right in the middle of Danny's pitch on the offshore last February/March.

Here's the whole piece:

Experience counts

For those who don’t know, I have been in the public relations business for the past 15 years. That includes seven years in politics and another eight in the public and private sectors. It’s an interesting field, if for no other reason than you keep running into people who think that because they read the papers, listen to the radio and watch television, they can do a PR job easily.

Sadly for those people, the news is filled each day with stories a buddy of mine used to call Homer Simpson moments – you see the story and the only thing to say is “D’Oh!” because the gaffs are easy to spot. They were predictable. They are damaging. They were avoidable.

Danny Williams’ interview with Macleans this week was a big Homer Simpson moment. The drunk comment came in response to a leading question from someone who hasn’t worked in the province since the scotch-soaked salad days of Frank Moores. The premier fell into an old trap and joked that now the House is completely drunk. D’oh!

Understand that the editor’s question came after the Premier volunteered the opinion that the House of Assembly was “unproductive” and joked that if he had his way he would probably never call it in session. D’oh! That question came after the Macleans crowd asked the Premier why the provincial deficit was so big. His response was mismanagement over the past 10 years. There was a lengthy bit about the Stunnel; two sentences on the fishery. D’oh! The last question had the Premier calling for a seal cull. D’oh! The Premier made some misstatements of fact, for good measure (D’oh!) and a couple of big ideas got a handful of words, without explanation. D’oh! Take the whole interview and you have a bunch of poor, laughing drunks, complaining about having no money, who apparently can’t manage their own affairs, and yet who want to build grandiose megaprojects and kill seals.

That interpretation is a bit facetious, but it fits rather nicely with the condescending view some central Canadian editors hold of Newfoundland and Labrador. What was missing from the interview? Overall, the premier needed to put our issues into terms that would be meaningful to his audience. There could have been a frank explanation of how developing the Lower Churchill benefits the whole country. The Premier could have talked at length about the local companies competing successfully around the globe in the energy, manufacturing and high tech sectors. For another, he could talk about how diversifying the provincial economy gets us off the equalization rolls. The Premier could have showed how offshore oil and gas can provide Canadians with a secure supply of vital energy and give Newfoundland and Labrador economic benefits like those in Alberta. That’s the Blue Book, Danny’s supposed plan.

Talk that way and you get a feature article, at least, not a cheesy question and answer session following a reporter’s agenda. You might even get the cover. Instead, readers got a piece that Michael Benedict, the 70s cub reporter and now Macleans executive editor, could have written from his old notes. Danny made the front page of the National Post, alright, but only because someone took offence at his jokes. D’oh!

Since the interview was so far off the Blue Book, this all happened for one of two reasons. Either Danny Williams’ advisors, the people he derisively referred to as handlers, are not doing their jobs or, taking his own advice, Danny is ignoring them because he feels they are trying to turn him into something he is not. If they aren’t doing their jobs or giving dumb advice, then Danny needs new advisors ASAP. If Danny is ignoring their good advice, then he needs to take a look in the mirror.

Public relations is not a job anyone can do. It takes skill and experience. Good advisors don’t change people into flavourless mush. They knock off the rough edges and help focus thinking so someone like the premier gets his point across. They are crucial to success. In PR, like in law, the guy who acts as his own counsel has a fool for a client.

By the way, who made the cover of Macleans last week? Rick Mercer – a Newfoundlander who gets paid to be funny.