07 April 2011

The Johnny Cab Minister (repost from The Persuasion Business)

This post originally appeared February 27, 2008 at The Persuasion Business:

Johnny Cab is a clever character in the 1990 movie Total Recall.  It's an automated taxi, voiced by veteran character actor Robert Picardo. You may recall him as the doctor on Star Trek: Voyager or as the witch Meg Mucklebones in the cult-hit Legend.

Taxis in the movie are entirely controlled by on-board computers.  To give them some semblance of normalcy, Johnny Cabs have robot drivers consisting of just a head and torso.  The computer is programmed with stock taxi driver lines like "Please state your destination" or "Helluva day."  If you don't ask a question to answer one that fits into the programming, the Johnny Cab will fall back on one of its stock lines.

You hear the same sort of thing with some people being interviewed by news media. Either they've had no media training, bad media training or the good training they had never took. No matter what the question, they refer back to their talking points or scripted lines. That's all the say.

Talking points are a standard feature of interview preparation.  A media relations officer will give three or four major points or ideas for the person being interviewed to make.  There should be some background or detail to expand on the point.  no set of talking points will ever be complete but good preparation means that someone being interviewed can make the points they want and nothing should be asked that comes as a surprise.

If the media person is doing his or her job, they already know the subject inside and out.  He can anticipate questions and provide sensible answers that convey meaningful information. The person being interviewed should also have more information;  he or she should be knowledgeable about the subject. If they aren't the interview will be incredible and the whole idea is to present credible, believable information from someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

After all, a media interview is a stock part of the persuasion business.  You want to gain support - not from the interviewer but from the audience -  and the way to do that is to present information in a way that people can relate to and understand.

A couple of times over the past week or so, provincial environment minister Charlene Johnson has wound up sounding like a Johnny Cab Minister.

In an interview with CBC's Ted Blades, Johnson was asked repeatedly over the course of a seven minute interview why her department didn't conduct regular structural inspections of 125 bridges over which thousands of people on the island pass ever week. She really never answered the question.  She fell back on her talking points, referring to a single bridge closure in 2006, or referring to her department's reliance on public complaints to know when a bridge needed some expert attention.

Now it's not like Blades was asking a bizarre or overly aggressive question.  Johnson herself said that public safety was paramount, that a human life was very important.  Blades' question gave Johnson a chance to give a concrete example or a convincing statement of how her department would put that sentiment into action.  After all, actions speak louder than words in the persuasion business.

Johnson could have easily said that the report from Transport Canada had caused her to re-examine the policy.  She and her officials would now work with the public works department and incorporate her hundred odd bridges into the others inspected annually by another department.

Her talking point  - her aide memoire - would have been something like this:  "Public safety is extremely important. It's so important that even though we had thought our policy was working, it isn't.  Now we'll be doing regular inspections."

And if hit with the question again or asked how they might have thought no inspections was a good idea, her response would be:  "You know, we all make decisions that make sense at the time but experience shows something else. So now we are inspecting these bridges and we'll do regular inspections by civil engineers to make sure the bridges are safe.  Public safety is that important."

But that's not what she had and, even though she is a cabinet minister responsible for running a department, she couldn't stray from the confines of her programming.  As a result,she sounded incredible, insincere, or at the very least laughable.

She did much the same thing in an interview on Wednesday with Chris O'Neill-Yates on the collapse of a paper recycling program in St. John's for want of $100,000 a year in operating cash.  A request to the provincial recycling agency was turned down even though, as CBC had earlier reported, the Multi-materials Stewardship Board had a surplus of $2.0 million last year.

Johnson couldn't commit to reconsidering the policy of not funding operating grants, even though she is the environment minister and recycling is a key part of government's waste diversion policy.  Nope.  better to send it to the dump, supposedly, as Johnson had earlier said when confronted with the issue.
And when asked about possibly reviewing the mandate of the decade-old recycling organization, Johnson talked about the board's "wonderful" work and the need to give news media a briefing on what "wonderful" work they were doing.


Wonderful work.

Even though, as a result of an old policy, a recycling project has collapsed and tons of recyclables are now going to the dump instead of to the recycler where they are supposed to go as part of the government's waste diversion, management and reduction policy.

It doesn't make sense.

But it was in the talking points.

And when you are a Johnny Cab Minister, the programmed talking points are all you've got.