12 June 2013

Concerning Partisan Communications from Non-Partisan Government Officials #nlpoli

Keith Hutchings issued a news release on Tuesday to respond to”inaccuracies on CETA negotiations.” That’s what the headline on the release said it was about.

He did so in his capacity as a cabinet minister, a non-partisan provincial government official, not as a Conservative.  The media contact name listed is for the departmental communications director.  If this person didn’t write the release, then she approved it, as did the minister and at least one senior official in Cabinet Secretariat.

If you want to understand the communications problem facing the provincial government, then you have a tidy example in this release.

To begin with, let's consider some things about news releases.

First, the release should contain news.  That is, the release should contain information that is previously unknown or unreported. In this case, one would also expect that the newsworthiness would come out of the controversy caused by having a minister correct inaccurate information. Logically, one would expect to find both the incorrect statements as well as the correct information.

Second, the release should be written in a professional style using the correct format. That means that the most important information – the who, what, where,  when, why, and so forth  - should be up front.  Preferably, you should put the most important information right in the first sentence. If the information won’t  fit in one sentence, then make two or three sentences out of it, but put it up front.

Third, use correct, standard English.

With that as prologue, let’s look at the release.
Newfoundland and Labrador remains focused on negotiations between Canada and the European Union for a new Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). A critical focus is to protect resources for the people of the province and maximize economic benefit for Newfoundland and Labrador.
The first paragraph contains two sentences that are motherhood statements.  Another word for them would be self-serving drivel, but let’s just note that they are not important, not newsworthy and have nothing to do with responding to inaccuracies about anything.

The second paragraph is a quote attributed to Hutchings. The first sentence of the quote states the provincial government’s priority in the European free trade talks.
“Our priority has always been to negotiate a new economic partnership agreement which provides enhanced trade and investment opportunities in the best interests of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said the Honourable Keith Hutchings, Minister of Innovation, Business and Rural Development.
Okay.  That statement is just not true.  The initial government policy was to boycott the talks. You cannot negotiate an agreement if you are not participating in the discussions.  So "always" is not correct.

So far no indication of the inaccuracies, who said them and what the correct information is.  We also have a false statement.  This is not looking good.

Then we get the first hint of what the release is supposedly about:
Publicized comments by a member of the Third Party on the CETA negotiations are concerning.
Oh boy.

This looks like we are finally getting somewhere, but we are not.

What comments? 

Who said them?

If you want to correct misinformation you have to tell people what the misinformation is.  At least tell them where to find the wrong so they can understand the right, which,  we must remind everyone, should actually be in the statement itself.  Even if there is no inaccurate information, then the correct stuff should be here in a release about correct stuff.

It's logical.

What is the Third Party? This is a term used only in the House of Assembly. It is meaningless to everyone else.  What’s worse, the phrase turns this release from a supposedly non-partisan provincial public servant into something closer to a partisan diatribe.   If the "member of the Third Party" means Chris Mitchelmore,  then the release could have mentioned him by name and given the name of the district he represents. Put that together with the supposedly incorrect information and you’d have a cabinet minister taking issue with incorrect information by an individual member of the legislature identified by his his official capacity.

There’s no need to mention a partisan affiliation at all,  well, not unless you mean to make a partisan issue out of this.  That’s also assuming they meant Chris and not someone else.  We don’t know what this is about because the release doesn’t include that crucial bit of information.

And what are they concerning?

What Keith apparently meant is that the statements caused concern to him or that the statements were worrisome or troubling.  The problem here is that “concerning” means about, with regard to, or respecting.  It is a preposition, not an adjective. While a great many people these days use the word ”concerning” just as the minister did, it is as wrong as saying prostrate (laying prone) when you want to refer to the male gland.
Keith then confirms that he is making a partisan issue out of this in the very next sentence:
“CETA negotiations are ongoing and it is irresponsible for the Third Party to make statements about the process that are inaccurate and present misguided information to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
So now Keith compounds the fundamental problems with his release  - partisan, no news, no correct information - by making accusations of inaccuracy and misinformation without actually telling us what was wrong.  Note that he also doesn’t tell anyone what the correct information is exactly.  He just says that unnamed people should not be making comments about the negotiations while they are going on.

Hang on a second.

That has nothing to do with inaccurate information.

That just says people shouldn't be commenting at all.

So the release that purports to be giving us correct information to replace inaccurate information is basically just a long winded, poorly written, partisan, STFU.

The next paragraph returns to the mention of provincial government objectives. The paragraph after that is another quote that offers up more self-serving drivel.

The last paragraph is a description of the trade talks.

  • There's no news.
  • There is a partisan tone as well as...
  • Unsubstantiated, partisan attacks using...
  • Unprofessional style and language.
  • The release also doesn't contact correct information.
  • It just tells some unnamed person to shut up and stop talking about a public issue of extreme importance to the provincial economy and the future.
  • This anti-democratic embarrassment was approved at the highest levels of the provincial government that last year gave us the anti-democratic Bill 29.
It’s doubtful that Fleischman-Hillard thought this sort of thing was a good idea.

It's doubtful that anyone who thought about the issue for a second would think this is a good idea.

What’s troubling is that so many people in the provincial government did.