25 April 2014

Prepared Statements and Unprepared Politicians #nlpoli

CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show is so off-put by politicians who issue prepared statements that they’ve found a former journalist turned journalism professor to discuss the growing trend not only in this province, but elsewhere.  Interviews are important, said professor, because then journalists can ask questions and get more information.

If CBC really wanted to get into this issue, they wouldn’t ask a journalism prof.  They’d be asking someone from the public relations or communications side of the street.  That person could explain the value of using many approaches to send information, not just the prepared statement.

You see,  prepared statements themselves aren’t the problem. They aren’t necessarily part of some growing and troubling trend, either.

Multiple Channels working together

Prepared statements are an integral part of any effective effort to provide information to people. Well written news releases give people valuable information in a way that the reader can readily understand.

Interviews are an essential part of that effort, as well.  They give reporters a chance to ask questions, of course, but the value for a politician or someone speaking on behalf of a company is that the interview gives them a chance to make sure the information that gets out there is accurate.

Interviews are a good way to explain things.  You can make sure the point gets across.  You can rebut contrary arguments, if need be, or correct misunderstanding or wrong information. If you are lucky enough to get an exceptionally good reporter on the other end of the conversation, you can wind up getting into all sorts of useful things.

When the reporter is writing or editing the story, the written statement can be a valuable source of factual information or a way of confirming what the interview subject said.  Interviews and written statements are not an either-or proposition.

These days, reporters often don’t have a great deal of time to muck around with interviews.  They seldom have the time to get familiar enough with you and the subject to even read your prepared statement before the interview.  The odds they might ask a crucial, insightful, or even blindingly obvious question is growing increasingly remote.

That’s not a criticism of today’s reporters compared to what things were like in the mythical good-old-days.  It’s just a comment on the fact that reporters are more likely these days to be struggling to keep up with the demands that they produce huge amounts of stuff to fill up more and more “platforms.” 

There are fewer reporters these days than there used to be and they are pumping out more stories because there is just lots more space to fill.  That’s why you will see and hear lots more material being reported these days that the newsroom picked up on youtube or Twitter. 

For all that,  interviews with reporters – either one-on-one or in a group – are a valuable way  of supplementing a prepared statement.  Even if the reporter just asks basic questions, the personal interview lets the person being interviewed use a whole range of voice and physical cues to add meaning to the words in the prepared statement.

Prepared statements can fit pretty neatly into a world where overtaxed reporters don’t do many interviews. They give newsrooms raw material to use.  If the public relations or communications unit is doing its job correctly, they can produce their own material in such a way that  newsrooms will use it without much editing. 

That is nothing new.  One of the reasons public relations people turn out news releases in a news style is to make it easier for reporters to cut and paste the release into the news story. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about 40 years ago or 40 minutes ago:  the basic demands of news reporting haven’t changed even if the modern reporter is more likely to be posting to the Internet website of a newspaper or radio station in addition to writing copy for those other platforms as well.

The Adventures of Premier Peek-a-Boo

Frank Coleman’s reliance on prepared statements isn’t a problem because prepared statements are bad.  The main problem with Coleman’s prepared statements is that he and his team appear to be are using the statements in order to avoid interviews he just doesn’t want to do.  You can see that in the way Coleman relied on a statement to respond to the controversy over his public political activity about abortion.  He pushed out a statement and didn’t do any media interviews until long after the public controversy had seriously damaged his own position and that of the party he will get around to leading at some point.

The second problem with Coleman’s statements is that they are badly written.  The one on abortion didn’t say anything.  And what it did say left itself open to all sorts of interpretations that only fuelled the controversy.

Those two problems led to a third one, namely the suggestion that Coleman and his team were not up to the demands of the job they’d taken on.   You can see that in the sharp – but valid – criticism by Stephen Tomblin.  Coleman has a combined problem with legitimacy and credibility.

Other people, your humble e-scribbler included, have pointed to the rather bizarre way Coleman responded to the news that his only competitor had dropped out of the race.  Rather than actually give the reporter he spoke with a useable comment, Coleman said that his campaign would be issuing a statement later on. 

Then there was the night of the by-election.  Rather than appear with the current leader and Premier, the cabinet, caucus,  and the rest of the party leaders and volunteers – including Bill Barry – Coleman showed up when no one was there and then left again.  He went off to a delegate selection meeting where he didn’t need to be and issued a bland prepared statement.

A week after Barry withdrew and left Coleman as the de facto winner of the Conservative Party leadership,  Coleman and the Conservatives have a growing political problem of which the peek-a-boo campaign and the prepared statements are but a symptom.

Don’t look at me.  I’m not running this show.

Not surprisingly, people are wondering when Coleman will take office

Surprisingly, in-coming Frank Coleman says that he is waiting for the party to tell him when they are ready for him.

And more surprisingly, party leader Tom Marshall is pointing to Frank and saying that the hand-over is up to him.

Telegram reporter James McLeod tried to get Coleman on the phone on Thursday to ask when the two leaders might be getting together to sort that out.  No surprise.

Sadly, no one was likely surprised when McLeod reported – via Twitter – that Coleman wouldn’t talk to him.  As Coleman’s communications manager later explained, the two haven’t met yet,  don’t really have a plan to meet yet and won’t say anything until later on.   She mentioned the date of the July Conservative convention, again raising the possibility that Coleman won’t take over the Premier’s Office any time soon.

The notion that Frank and Tom haven’t even spoken on the phone and to sort this out is just nutty.  Normally, the two leaders would have spoken and passed off the main job of organizing the transition to their respective chiefs of staff as head of a transition team. 

The only logical reason for this delay is the only logical reason why Frank has been avoiding any significant public appearances:  he’s not even close to being ready.  Given his delay in announcing his candidacy in the first place, it may even be that Frank didn’t really want the job in the first place.  Someone talked him into it.

All that would explain why Frank doesn’t have anything to say.  If Frank had ideas and plans about what to do, then he’d be pretty anxious to tell us all about them. He’d also be really anxious to get in the office so he could start work. This is a guy who, according to the story, is so keep on plans that his family has a mission statement.

So how come he isn’t planning to become Premier?