Those who follow Canadian politics are well aware that a stubborn problem with government is the concentration of power in the “centre.” In Ottawa, everything turns on the whim of the prime minister and central agencies, in particular the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to devolve power to his ministers. Perhaps, but he is a media darling who welcomes the spotlight, and the Liberal strategists around him care deeply about managing the boss’s brand. If they will not tolerate Liberal election candidates going off script, they are highly unlikely to permit any other government spokespersons to do so either.
Does that mean all communications decisions must flow through the Trudeau PMO — or are ministers and departments trusted by the centre to handle media relations? Both, it turns out.
In 2016, my research assistant Laura Howells and I collected over 100 internal communications templates from 21 federal ministries and agencies. The documents were obtained through a combination of asking departments to provide them informally and, when necessary, by filing access to information requests. Among the collected materials were forms used for processing inquiries from the media, such as media “lines” and notes for communications opportunities. We also collected media relations strategy templates; for instance, announcement plans, video project proposals, event planning checklists and key message templates. Also in the set of documents were communications calendars and rollout plans, including plans for using social media. These internal instruments illustrate that there are many moving parts to be aligned when the government prepares to make a public announcement. The findings, coupled with insights from government insiders about the strategic management of media relations, were recently published in the journal Canadian Public Policy.
One of the surprises was that aspects of the Conservatives’ Message Event Proposal (MEP) template were still being used by some departments. That central management tool, an example of which can be found in the Canadian Public Policy article, was used to methodically coordinate Stephen Harper’s media activities during the 2006 election campaign. It was then imposed throughout government by the Harper PMO around 2008, during a tumultuous period of minority governance when political personnel sought to approve all facets of communications. Some might say that the MEP turned public servants into cogs in a propaganda machine. The Trudeau Liberals quickly ended the practice, but some departments have continued using elements of it within their own media planning. However, we found no evidence of a parallel Liberal instrument.
Their practices reflect today’s communications battlefield of data mining, digital and social media, political marketing and permanent campaigning.
Another interesting finding is that the Liberals are introducing a new dynamic to their government communications strategy. One planning document requires the promotion of data points: key messages must include statistics, key dates, milestones and other numbers such as how many participants are involved in an event or program. Moreover, the government’s evaluation of its communications requires that online metrics be employed. Public servants count the number of shares on Facebook and retweets on Twitter. Statistics about media coverage are generated through Google Analytics and Quick Response code data. As others have before them, the Liberals are imposing the communications machinery that worked for them on the campaign trail and are availing themselves of the government’s formidable resources. Their practices reflect today’s communications battlefield of data mining, digital and social media, political marketing and permanent campaigning.
So, on the surface, departments are using their own communications templates rather than one imposed by the centre. They are drawing on a variety of best practices, including carry-overs from the Conservative era and the introduction of new approaches plied by the Liberal Party. In this light, government by cabinet is back, as Trudeau promised.
But look a little deeper and we see that the PMO and PCO remain very much interested in what ministers and departments are doing. Among the collected documents was an internal diagram titled “Events and Announcements—Approval Guidelines.” It states that departments are to package their messaging to highlight connections with broader government initiatives, notably the Throne Speech and budget. Ministers still need the permission of the centre to proceed with an announcement, though they do have discretion on small items. Specifically, the approval guidelines instruct that the PCO must vet the following: “sensitive issue; PCO discretion; horizontal issue [e.g., a whole of government matter that touches multiple departments]; specific item in the Speech from the Throne; specific item in the mandate letter; international meetings; over $10M; federal/provincial/territorial; legislations and House of Commons activities; budgetary measures.” On such issues, information is fed up the line so that the PCO and the PMO are aware of a minister’s plans and can authorize whether the announcement should proceed. Personnel in the centre offer strategic guidance, plug the announcement into a central communications calendar and review draft media products. If the event is particularly juicy, they might co-opt it so that the prime minister takes centre stage.
My impression is that the level of communications coordination in the Trudeau government’s first year exceeds that of the Harper government’s at the same stage in its tenure. This is hardly nefarious. Communications technology and the public environment have evolved considerably. Anyone who does not synchronize spoken, written and visual messaging won’t punch through the clutter and is at risk of controversy. A united, cohesive brand is paramount. Nevertheless, Canadians should be concerned when centralization in public administration becomes normal, particularly when power is concentrated among staff who sit atop the government hierarchy and are not accountable to Parliament.
New rules introduced by the Liberals about government advertising go some way to resolving ways that the Harper government exploited communications resources for partisan gain. For instance, Advertising Standards Canada now reviews government ads in an effort to minimize partisanship. But considerably more needs to be done where unpaid media and spin are concerned. The communications policy of the government of Canada needs to be more stringent about applying standards of non-partisanship to the use of social media. Details about spending on media relations such as photo ops should be outlined in annual reports to Parliament, as is done for advertising and public opinion research. I do not think that we should tolerate the practice of unnamed government “sources” leaking information to journalists in exchange for favourable treatment, particularly when the unidentified officials are PMO staffers. Finally, internal communications planning templates like the ones examined as part of our research should be publicly available. While none of these measures would stop the trend toward central control, they would signal a further step toward good government.
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