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The Duffy trial and Stephen Harper's communications dilemma

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“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” 

Walter Scott

After a motorcycle trip to the White Mountains, where they don’t carry much Canadian news, I spent last evening getting caught up on what’s been going on with the election campaign and the Duffy trial.


From a crisis communications perspective, I can’t help but wonder how much longer Stephen Harper can continue to ignore that his Chief of Staff Ray Novak was indeed among the PMO staff that was in on the ill-fated scheme to deceive Canadians about the $90,000 cheque for Mike Duffy’s expenses. 


Mind you it isn’t proven yet, but when it came out in court that the Prime Minister’s lawyer Ben Perrin told the RCMP that he was positive Novak knew because he looked right into his face to see his reaction, when Nigel Wright suggested the scheme, that sounds pretty definitive.

This creates a particular problem for the Prime Minister as it means either he had to have known too, or that Novak purposely kept him in the dark. Either way, Canadians were purposely mislead by the PMO, and Harper’s response that it was only Duffy and Wright who knew, grows weaker every time he repeats it.


Which brings us back to the dilemma facing the PM. He hates the fact that the questions he is being asked are mainly focused on this, not whatever the campaign announcement of the day happens to be.  That has got to be rough for someone who does everything in his power to control everything. Hell, he’s not even willing to meet ordinary Canadians, only pre-screened party supporters. What level of ridiculous campaign control is that?

But back to the problem. What to do? How does he, as they say, change the channel?

The first rule of thumb in crisis communications is to be honest. But that means from the start. And that ship may have already sailed.


Neither of his options is good. He can continue to repeat his talking point that this is only about Duffy and Wright. But that fails to address the very legitimate questions of whether he was OK with deceiving the Canadian public, or was he was mislead by Novak. And if so, he is going to fire him? And what does it say about the culture of the PMO that the bunch of them were quite prepared to go along with Wright’s plan to deceive Canadians?


Refusing to address these questions will not make them go away. They just make him sound evasive. And his non-answers will continue to overshadow his campaign announcements.

But on the other hand, he has stuck by his talking points for so long, he can’t easily change his course now.

His hope may lie in the fact that after next week, the trial will adjourn until after the election. And then maybe reporters will move on as well. Sure bet though, that Mulcair, Trudeau and Elizabeth May will do their level best to keep it alive.

He can also hope that Canadians aren’t paying attention or simply don’t care. 

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