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Much Ado About Nothing - a cautionary tale about the media and politicians

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I have never before written a blog directly related to a client. Always thought it best to keep the two separate. But I am going to make an exception today because what I find myself involved in has many lessons related to communications, from how the media works to how politicians act.

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If you are in New Brunswick you may have seen yesterday’s front page, above the fold story in all three English language dailies.  The headlines ranged from  “Union apologies for email asking NB Power workers to support Grits” to “Union sorry for partisan email sent to utility workers”.  This morning, the follow-up story, again in all three papers with the headline “Energy critic calls for review of email asking NB Power workers to back Liberals” or some variation.

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Disclosure – the union in question is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 37, which represents, among others, NB Power employees.  They have been a BissettMatheson client for many years.

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Now, here’s what happened. The other day, the IBEW national office sent the New Brunswick local, among others, an email. Like every major union in Canada, it sees the Harper government as anti-union so obviously, it is in organized labour’s interests to seek a change. Just like any other group, like say, the forest industry, it tends to pursue its best interests.

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Working with political strategists it identified key ridings across the country where it felt candidates who were more union friendly had a good chance of winning. In various ridings they identified candidates of various parties. In New Brunswick they identified three ridings where it felt the odds were good that the Conservative could be defeated, and in these three cases they saw the Liberal candidate as having the best shot. They wanted to get the word out to IBEW members that they would be hosting training sessions for any members in these ridings who might want to volunteer to help in any of these three campaigns.

That was the long and short of the memo. No pressure. And certainly no request to vote any certain way. Just a message as stated above.

The role of Local 37 was simply to forward that message. As you might expect, lots of emails get sent to members, both to their work accounts when it is a work related issue, and to their private emails when it is union business.

Long story short, by mistake this one was sent to the members’ work accounts. When it was realized, which was pretty quickly, the local immediately apologized to NB Power, and sent out an explanation to the membership.  Over the years the local has established an excellent working relationship with NB Power, and we appreciate that they understood that mistakes happen, and that it was unintentional.

That should have been the end of it. But when you send an email to 2,000 people, even if there are your closest personal friends, the chances of it going beyond that circle is pretty good. Which leads us to the media.

The headlines were inaccurate, the union didn’t apologize for the email, just for sending it using the work addresses, and the memo did not ask anybody to vote for the Liberals. But the reporter doesn’t write the headlines, and what he did write, the stories themselves, were actually quite accurate.

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But then Jake Stewart, the provincial energy critic for the PCs, decides this is something he can make some hay on. So mustering up the most outrage he possibly could, he calls for a complete external review of how something this terrible could happen.

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He is calling for all emails, telephone, and face-to-face conversations regarding the email in question to be gathered under oath and made public.

And he has taken the leap of tying it to the provincial Liberal government, calling it “sickening” and that “taxpayers deserve to know the full and unvarnished truth from a third party that is removed from the tentacles of Premier Gallant”.

Somehow, somewhere in the recesses of Stewart’s imagination, he spun the whole thing into interference by the Energy Minister pressuring employees to help federal Liberal candidates, adding, “we have now entered resignation and public inquiry territory.”

Wow. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

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And talk about not letting the facts get in the way of a good rant.

I understand that politicians will exaggerate and distort if they think they can score a brownie point or two by embarrassing the other side, and if it were reversed I have no doubt the other side would do the same thing. It’s the way it works.

But because I was directly involved in this one, I know first hand and absolutely, that it was nothing more and nothing less than an honest mistake.

And now today, the editorial writer at the TJ piled on, apparently swallowing Jake Stewart’s distorted and exaggerated interpretation of the facts whole, calling it a black eye for NB Power.

The take away is perhaps a cautionary tale of how we really do need to take what we see in the media with a grain of salt. It is a case where a simple, honest mistake that had absolutely nothing to do with NB Power, was blown out of all proportion by a politician for political gain, and then leveraged by a newspaper’s editorial side to repeat tired union stereotypes. The fact of what actually happened had precious little to do with it.

No wonder the media and politicians are held in such low regard.   

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