03 April 2008

Revisiting the Gorge of Eternal Peril

An e-mail from a seasoned political observer prompted a second look at a post original made at Persuasion Business in the summer of 2007.

The e-mail exchange centred on the political implications of sudden discoveries of e-mails previously not thought to exist or of the question of what the Premier knew of the Eastern Health crisis and when he knew it. The notion of credibility came quickly to mind since it is a core concept in public relations and it is certainly a core concept in the entire Eastern Health debacle.

The whole idea is the focus of a post titled "The Gorge of Eternal Peril."

One of the examples cited is a pair of comments made on George Tilley's resignation.  In hindsight, it is remarkable to see how consist Eastern Health and the health ministry have been in trying puffery and palaver when simple straightforward statements would do.  Tilley's replacement taxed the ears of her audience on Thursday with her endless talk of stories being told at the end of the day.

At the same time, it's also interesting to note that Joan Dawe told a completely different story about Tilley's resignation when she was under an oath to tell the truth just last week than what she said when Tilley packed it in. Dawe turned up on CBC Radio on Thursday afternoon with a few more platitudes that persuaded no one of anything.  She insisted that this breast cancer thingy was a unique event and that there were no answers to be found in books or on the Internet on how to deal with it.

 She also trotted out the simplistic nonsense that while their ethical guidelines covered dealing with a single patient and a problem, there were no rules about how to deal with a hundred or more.
Let's demolish that as concisely as possible.

Dawe's comments are as preposterous as, it turns out, was her original version of the Tilley resignation.  The incident may have had some unique characteristics but generally it was a crisis. There are countless examples of how to deal with crises effectively.  Dawe's organization did not follow any of the accepted approaches and she and her colleagues are now facing public scorn as a consequence.

If doctors took the same practice of groping for excuses as Dawe does to this, then more people would be dropping dead of heart attacks because no one named George Evans who lives at 27 Smith Street in Anytown Newfoundland has presented before with a heart attack accompanied by a slight limp.  "We've seen heart attacks, limps and George Evans before," saith the attending physician over the corpse, "but since never all at once, I didn't know what to do.  I just did the best I could.  There were no rules."

Overall though, Dawe's excuse - and that's all it is - sounds suspiciously familiar.  Her contention is that people did the best in the situation where there were no rules governing the situation.
No rules.

It seems to be a recurring theme of the provincial government that when trouble arises, the ready-made excuse is that there were no rules to govern this eventuality.  That story may have worked once but in terms Jones may find familiar,  as we now approach the twilight of this latest crisis, Dawe, Jones and others may find that their story is wearing a little thin on the ears of clients seeking service.
All the same, the root of their problem goes back to a simple idea that - ironically enough - can be found in books and on the Internet. 

The Gorge of Eternal Peril: credibility and communications
[originally posted at The Persuasion Business, July 10, 2007]

If public relations is about communicating to gain and maintain support, then a core idea in any communication has to be credibility.

Literally, the word credible means believable. Credible is also synonymous with "worthy of confidence" and "reliable" or "authentic", another word that is coming into increasingly common usage among advertising and communications practitioners. All of those things relate back to the core idea of communicating in order to gain support.

Communication is credible if it contains information, and that information has to be inherently believable. It helps to put the information in a context so that the listener or reader can comprehend the context of a decision or event. The context can often be in the form of a story - a narrative - that recounts simply and straightforwardly what happened and, to the extent anyone can understand it, the "why" of something.

Vague comments suggest that information is being withheld for no good reason. That almost inevitably arouses suspicion, and as we will see in the example below, the suspicion may be directed in the wrong place - that is wrong if the suspicion is about you and the organization you represent, the one under scrutiny.

Listeners to CBC Radio's On the Go on Monday afternoon got two startlingly different interviews on issues of public controversy. How the people being interviewed answered questions from reporters - simple, logical questions - revealed a great deal about how different organizations within the same administration handle communications.  One was inherently credible while the other was, well, incredible.

First came Trevor Taylor, the provincial minister of innovation and business development. He's the guy in charge of provincial government financial support to small and medium businesses. He was answering questions about $750,000 provided to Garrison Guitars.

Garrison was the subject of a recent Auditor General report that raised questions about how the company had received $300,000 when a previous loan of $450,000 hadn't been repaid. Last week, Garrison announced that the company was being sold to Gibson, the largest guitar manufacturer in the world and as part of that sale, Garrison was first being placed into voluntary receivership. A number of people have publicly asked about the status of the government loans and how much - if anything government would get back.

Taylor could have simply relied on the typical government talking points. He could have talked about the government's commitment to creating jobs in the province and supporting businesses as part of the Williams administration's unstinting commitment to creating new job opportunities to end outmigration.

Taylor didn't do that. He stated frankly that the original $450,000 had been converted to shares in the company. Like most of the investors, Taylor said, government wouldn't be seeing any of the $450,000 being recovered. On the $300,000, government was likely to receive repayment of at least two thirds of that. Simply and factual and to the point.

Then he went beyond those simple facts. Government typically winds up supporting ventures that can't secure loans from major banks. Government - not just this administration but previous ones - sometimes saw good results from loans. Sometimes it didn't. in this case, the company was able to work through some tough times, create jobs, develop a unique design and ultimately sell the company to a major international manufacturer. That sale would secure existing jobs and provide 40 new ones;  hardly stunning in its size but still a noteworthy accomplishment. Taylor also stated frankly that he doubted if Garrison's current owner would be walking away with scads of cash.

He didn't duck any questions. There were some details he couldn't give - like how much cash is involved in the sale - but then again most reasonable people understand the notion of confidentiality when dealing with a private sector business. overall, though, Taylor's frank, factual account - complete with the philosophy behind the loans - was inherently credible. The content, i.e. the facts, and the frankness of Taylor's presentation bore all the hallmarks of believability. This was a guy who clearly had nothing to hide.

Contrast that with comments by Taylor's cabinet colleague, health minister Ross Wiseman and Eastern Health board chair Joan Dawe speaking about the sudden resignation on Monday of president and chief executive officer George Tilley. On the Go's Ted Blades interviewed Wiseman and before that interview, Blades played comments made by Dawe at a news conference held earlier in the afternoon.

To put this in context, Tilley was under pressure over the handling of two cases. One was breast cancer testing discussed previously at Persuasion Business. The other was the suspension of a radiologist over concerns about his handling of about 6,000 reports affecting about 3,500 patients at a hospital in Burin.

Less than two months ago, opposition politicians called for Tilley to resign or be fired. Government refused at the time and Tilley spoke eloquently of the need to continue providing leadership through a tough time for the health authority and its employees. In making the announcement today, Dawe acknowledged to reporters that Tilley's resignation had come as a surprise.

So had he been fired or asked to resign? Neither Dawe nor Wiseman answered the question directly. They certainly knew why Tilley had tossed his teddy in the corner - to borrow a phrase from the Guards - but they refused to state why claiming that it would be "inappropriate" to do so.

In answer to some questions, both Dawe and Wiseman referred to Tilley's long service in health care administration, as if that was actually useful information in the context of his resignation. That sort of comment is pap at the best of times and in this case, it suggests there is a bigger story neither Dawe as head of the health authority's board nor Wiseman - the guy with enough power to order six months of radiology work re-done in two weeks - deflected one question as being about an employee issue with the board and therefore beyond his proper scope of comment.

To give a sense of the vacuous nature of Eastern Health's media lines, vocm.com used one of them in its online report: "A statement from Eastern Health says the Board of Trustees is fully committed to providing quality health and community services." There's a stunning insight into the Tilley resignation and what it means.

To give another sense of how little meaningful information Eastern Health distributed today, here's the complete text of an internal e-mail sent by Dawe to Eastern Health employees at mid-day.

Subject: Memo to Staff, Physicians and Managers from the Board of Trustees 
To: Staff, Physicians and Managers 
From: Joan Dawe, Chair, Board of Trustees 
Today, the Board of Trustees for Eastern Health accepted the resignation of its President and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. George Tilley. We appreciate Mr. Tilley’s contribution to Eastern Health since January, 2005. 
Ms. Louise Jones will act as interim President and Chief Executive Officer effective immediately. Ms. Jones has more than 25 years experience in the health care system and has Eastern Health’s Chief Operating Officer for Adult Acute Care, St. John’s. 
The Board of Trustees supports the Executive and Ms. Jones and believes that the team has the strengths necessary to lead Eastern Health through this challenging time. We also believe that this is a strong organization with the ability to continue to focus on providing quality patient, client and resident care despite these challenges.
We plan to issue a public news release later this afternoon.
Joan Dawe

To employees at Eastern Health, even those somewhat removed from either the controversy or from Tilley himself, the sudden departure of the most senior leader is a big issue. Staff will wonder what it means and more particularly what it means for them. They may well be wondering who else may be leaving, not merely out of idle curiosity but because major changes in administration inevitably make their way down through the whole organization. They've got a personal interest in what's going on.

Beyond that, giving people factual information tells the employees of a company in a crisis that they are valued: they are important enough to know what is going on. In any bureaucracy, knowledge is a commodity of power. Giving people information gives them power at least over themselves and their immediate surroundings. Information gives them a a sense of being included. Even if it is not blatantly obvious, giving factual information reinforces the relationship.

Instead of that, hospitals across Eastern region will be rife with rumour, most of it sheer bunk. Eastern Health has already been rife with rumours about the radiology problem in Burin, most of it complete bunk. So it's not like there isn't experience with the corrosive effect of rumour and speculation on morale and confidence in the leadership team.

Fundamentally, providing information strengths relationships or, at the very least, doesn't contribute further stress in an already stressful environment.

Compare that to the messages sent to Garrison Guitar employees and to the thousands of people whose jobs are tied to government financial support for this, that, or another new venture.
Government invests in companies and will continue to take risks because sometimes the payoff is worthwhile. The existing employees of garrison are valuable and so too are the ones yet to be hired.

At Eastern Health, the guy who navigated the organization through the back end of one and the front end of another major corporate reorganization is gone and the most that could be said was that "We appreciate Mr. Tilley's contribution to Eastern Health since January 2005."

One lousy sentence in a terse and impersonal e-mail and they couldn't even get the facts straight: Tilley has been in various senior administration positions in health care for two decades.

Beyond the internal messages sent, everyone outside of the inner circle - Dawe, Wiseman and a few others - is left to wonder if the axe fell on Tilley, who else it will fall on. If Tilley's resignation was a surprise to the board - as Dawe indicated -  people will only wonder what other shocks are to come as both the lawsuit and a public inquiry play out over the next year.

Dawe and Wiseman's vague answers lacked fundamental credibility.

And ultimately, Dawe and Wiseman's incredible comments - unbelievable because they said nothing of substance - will likely turn what was already a serious problem in the relationships involving Eastern Health into much more serious ones.

They turned a credibility gap - the space between what was said and what occurred - into a gaping chasm, something I call the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

Provide honest answers to three questions and you can walk across the bridge to the other side. Spout nonsense and the wizened bridge keeper will fling you off the cliff.

What's consistently amazing is that senior leaders will still carry on this way, as Wiseman and Dawe did today, and think that what they did constitutes successful communication let alone public relations.

What's perhaps even more amazing is that at the same time the Eastern Health problem took a decided turn for the worse, across town, another minister in the same administration, following the same communications policy - openness, transparency and accountability - gave a text-book example of how to practice effective public relations.