Crisis Communications Tag - BissettMatheson Communications Sun, 19 Nov 2017 14:17:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb Trudeau haters off base in criticisms of his Fort McMurray response

It is a reality of the Internet that there’s no filter. People are free to display their ignorance and hate to their heart’s content, never having to fuss about accuracy or fairness.

The wildfires that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray has brought the armchair critics and the Trudeau haters out in force, with criticisms ranging from his failure to immediately go to the centre of the action, to refusing offers from Russia and other foreign countries to send help.

Some of this criticism on social media may be genuine, coming from people who simply don’t understand firefighting and assume the more water bombers in the air and firefighters on the ground the better. That’s fair, but much of it is coming from people who are trying to eploit the Fort Mac tragedy to take an unfair shot at Trudeau.

I realize that haters have to hate, and heaven knows I have no problem criticizing politicians, including Trudeau when warranted, but these cheap shots should be called out. And frankly, my hope with this blog is to embarrass those who are taking these unfair shots to think a little bit, maybe read some arguments of why Trudeau didn’t fly out to Fort Mac immediately or accept the help of other countries. Here’s a radical idea - maybe listen to the experts. I appreciate that is, in many cases, asking a lot of these people, but hope springs eternal.

All of which is an introduction to this blog I discovered by Alberta blogger Robbie Kreger-Smith entitled Trudeau Doesn’t Know What he’s Doing.

It's intelligent and well written, with some interesting insight into the nature of wildfires and how to battle them. And it deserves a read, so here it is:

I'm just going to come right out and say it. Justin Trudeau isn't a nano-computing specialist and he most certainly isn't a firefighter or wildfire specialist. When it comes to a major disaster like the wildfire facing Fort McMurray, he just doesn't have a clue what he's doing. 


And yet, in this, he is showing his ability to provide leadership. 

There is a process that is entrenched in our society when it comes to disaster management. In times of crisis, good well practiced processes lead to successful outcomes. So far in Fort McMurray, in a fire significantly larger than the 2011 Slave Lake fire where 30% of the town was destroyed, only 10% of the structures were lost in the city.

An unprecedented evacuation was carried out with as many as 90,000 evacuees fleeing the town with 2 casualties so far, in an MVA. While that loss of life is tragic, the scale of the evacuation is a raging success. 

I looked at the Public Safety Canada website and found this regarding disaster management;

Emergencies are managed first at the local level – for example, by first responders such as medical professionals and hospitals, fire departments, the police and municipalities. Local authorities who need assistance request it from provincial or territorial governments. If an emergency escalates beyond their capabilities, the province or territory may seek assistance from the federal government. Public Safety Canada led the development of the National Emergency Response System (NERS) with provincial and territorial officials, which was approved by Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers in January 2011. The NERS enables coordinated efforts in responding to emergencies. 

The Government Operations Centre (GOC) is the principal means by which the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness' leadership role in establishing an integrated approach to emergency response is exercised.  Housed at Public Safety Canada, the GOC, on behalf of the Government of Canada, supports response coordination of events affecting the national interest. It brings all partners into a common environment to harmonize and synchronize collective actions of those partners. The GOC operates 24/7 to provide watch, warning, analysis, planning, logistics support and coordination across the federal government and with its partners, including provincial and territorial governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and international partners.

Sounds like a pretty well thought out process. Every level of government signed onto it. And this is how the Fort McMurray fires have been managed, with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo taking lead until the fire had expanded beyond their capabilities.

So now today, my social media is flooded with complaints about Justin Trudeau not accepting help from Australia, Thailand and Russia to help extinguish the fire. What an incompetent fool. All of these countries lining up to help with the biggest fire in our nation's history basically and he's turning it away. Clearly he's demonstrating that he is not fit to lead. 

The thing about this fire is that it is so big and so hot that it is unique, almost unheard of in Canadian history. And as a result of that it is difficult to fight. In fact, nearly impossible. And as it has grown to cover more than 2000 sq. km, the approach to fighting this fire has evolved from one of fighting the fire, to containing and directing it away from critical infrastructure and populated areas. The Alberta Wildfire department has said that this is too big to be extinguished by humans, and the only way it's going to be put out is burning itself out, or significant periods of heavy rain. When bombers are attempting to drop water on the burning areas, it is evaporating before hitting the fires. Reports have said the fire is burning between 700 and 1000 degrees. 

And so in a situation where Trudeau isn't qualified or trained to make decisions, he is listening to the guidance of the people who are educated and do this for a living. The experts. He's in his offices, working on the logistics of what they need, not out getting in the way in Fort McMurray, or pulling resources away from where they're needed for the sake of a photo op. And he's letting the heroes that have prevented a devastating situation from becoming the end of Fort McMurray do their jobs. 


Stephen Harper was mocked in 2015 for taking

firefighters from an active firefight for a staged

photo op in Kelowna, BC 

The Alberta department has stated that the airspace cannot safely support more air traffic than it already has. Bringing in more would create a risk, with potential for collisions.

Additionally, I don't think there's a person in their right mind that wants to open the door for Russian planes to be flying in our airspace, no matter the reason. 

So yes, Trudeau has no clue what he's doing. But he's relying on the advice and guidance of the people who do to make sure he makes good, informed decisions, doesn't overstep his bounds and Alberta gets what it needs in it's time of need. 

I've attached below some interesting reads on the firefight strategy, the lead up to the fire, and some quotables from the fire updates;

$1·       How Firefighters Are Trying To Tame The Blaze (The Globe & Mail)

$1·       Alberta Blaze Could Take Months To Extinguish (The Star)

$1·       Fort McMurray wildfire response now in ‘Phase 2’ (Global News)

If you've enjoyed Robbie's blog, here's a link to his site: You can follow him on social media, and "like" his Facebook page @ 

Thanks for reading. As always, shares including ReTweets are appreciated. 

]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 11 May 2016 04:19:17 +0000
A look at the crisis communications around the Fort McMurray evacuations

Like so many Canadians, I have been following closely the news around the Fort McMurray evacuation. It goes without saying that one can’t help but be moved by the dramatic video, the tragic losses, the personal stories of adversity, the related triumph of the human spirit, the generosity of a country coming together, the enormity of the whole thing.

As a student of crisis communications, I have also been following this story through that lens. And I must say the response of the politicians has, so far, been impressive.


Premier Notley has presented herself as calm and reassuring, exactly what is needed in this situation. When she said to her displaced constituents “Trust us that we have your back, that we will be there for you”, it was exactly what these people, who have had their world turned upside down, needed to hear.


Equally, Prime Minister Trudeau has done all the right things starting with staying away.  Heaven knows he seldom misses an opportunity for a photo-op, but good on him for realizing this wasn’t the time. There is nothing the officials and emergency responders around Fort Mac would need less in the circumstances than the Prime Minister and his entourage showing up and getting in the way.


His comment that it would not be a “particularly helpful thing” is a victory of common sense over opportunism, and stands in stark contrast to Stephen Harper at the forest fire in Kelowna last year. When he and his group showed up, firefighters were told to stop what they were doing, which was fighting the fire, and stand around while his people arranged a photo-op. It was obvious they did not appreciate being used as props. So good on Trudeau for not doing that.


In other ways as well, the political response has been solid. The quick mobilization of resources, the regular media briefings, the immediate cash for those who had to flee, the fast-tracking of EI for those who have lost their jobs. In fact, I can’t think of one area where either the provincial or federal government can be criticized.


Even the federal announcement of matching all private donations dollar for dollar has worked as a catalyst to encourage the generosity of Canadians from one end of the country to the other. The last count more than $50 million had been donated.

This story will evolve over the coming months and years, and no doubt there will be political stumbles and controversies along the way. But looking at it from a crisis communications point of view, the way both Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau are handling it so far, is textbook.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 09 May 2016 01:45:56 +0000
The Duffy trial and Stephen Harper's communications dilemma

“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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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 20 Aug 2015 01:21:33 +0000
Is damage control the new normal for the Gallant government?

Once again, the Liberal government has been forced into damage control mode over a questionable decision. These are adding up — among them there’s the decision on daycares, the flip-flop on the genetic-testing equipment for the Saint John Regional Hospital and, most recently, awarding a snow plows contract potentially worth half a million dollars to a Quebec company over a Hartland-based one when the difference in the bids was only $1600.

Constantly running your communications from a position of damage control is no way to instill confidence. But, when you don’t think things through, and that lack of due diligence comes back to bite you in the ass, you have no choice. That seems to be the pattern here.


Looking just at the following three examples: with the daycares it was to cut subsidies to owner/operators and to use that money to increase wages of daycare workers. At first blush, that seemed reasonable as daycare workers are woefully underpaid, but the problem is that the owner/operators aren’t fat cats coining it at the expense of their workforce. For the most part they are in there with the employees doing the same work and getting by on a shoestring. Due diligence would have shown that.


The initial decision to refuse the DNA sequencing equipment for the Saint John Regional Hospital despite the fact that the money for it had been raised through a year-long fundraising campaign is equally curious. It is unknown at this time whether that was simply another case of not doing their homework or bending to pressure from the privately owned Atlantic Cancer Research Centre in Moncton. Either way, they should have realized the terrible position it put the Regional Hospital Foundation in, and that, of course, the Foundation would have to fight back to preserve its credibility.  As we know it did, the government reversed its decision, and now it is the Moncton company that is upset.  A lot of what is being said is contradictory, and hopefully someday the truth will come out. In the meantime, here’s another mess of the government’s doing, despite its insistence it’s the former government’s fault.b2ap3_thumbnail_Craig.jpg

And now the government decision to award a substantial contract to provide plows and wings for the Department of Transportation to a Quebec company, even though its bid was a mere $1600 below the bid from Craig Manufacturing in Hartland.

That’s a tough one given the government’s often repeated talking point that creating jobs and strengthening our fiscal situation are the government’s two main priorities. Not only does the local company lose the work, but the spin-off benefits from the money being spent locally is lost as well, as are the taxes that would have been paid by the employees and Craig Manufacturing itself. All for the sake of $1600.

In what universe does this decision make sense? Well, apparently it makes sense to the bureaucrats. Asked for comment, a government spokeswoman said this: "The tender for this contract was conducted in compliance with the regulation under the procurement act. It was compliant with the various trade agreements to which the Province is a signatory. While both bidders met the technical evaluation criteria, the contract was awarded based on the lowest price, as stipulated in the tender documents."

This tells us the bureaucrats, or at least this one, doesn’t get it. Premier Gallant, I expect, realizes that’s not going to wash, and he has agreed to meet with the company. Maybe he’s not at fault. Maybe the bureaucrats didn’t look beyond the numbers on the page and awarded it unbeknownst to him. That plausible, but doesn’t matter. By the nature of his position, he has to wear it. And it has forced him and his government into damage control once again.

Once again, Premier Gallant and his government take a hit to their credibility.

UPDATE - This afternoon the government cancelled its contract with the Quebec company. At this point it has not been awarded to Craig Manufacturing, or anyone else; the government stating it is under review. There has been no comment on what cancelling the contract, which was awarded in May, may cost taxpayers.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Sun, 21 Jun 2015 23:10:56 +0000
Honourable Senators Well, maybe not so much


So, how do you like the Senate now?

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse.

Every time I see a new revelation or an attempt at rationalization by a Senator who is doing his or her very best to convince us he or she did nothing wrong, and that the real problem is that Auditor General Michael Ferguson simply doesn’t understand how important they are and what they do, and how the Senate operates, I can’t help but think of this guy 

Ah yes, David “I’m entitled to my entitlements” Dingwall. Can’t help but notice how the Senate response has the David Dingwall attitude written all over it.


And I think most of us would disagree with the Senators and agree that the Auditor General understands only too well how the Senate operates.

From a communications perspective, it’s an interesting thing to watch. This is damage control in slow motion, which is always the very worse kind.  I can’t imagine the thinking behind holding the report back from the public for several days after it was presented. It was very unlikely information from it wouldn’t leak. Which of course is exactly what happened, guaranteeing lots of extra coverage and stories before the report was released to the public.


But that aside, what has been stripped bare for all of Canada to see is an Upper Chamber of characters who feel entitled. The attitude seems to be one of "what the hell, why spend our own money when we can spent taxpayer money, and there’s lots more where that came from". 

This space isn’t long enough to list off the litany of abuses, from putting the most personal of expenses on the taxpayer tab to playing fast and loose with residency rules.


We were outraged when we heard of Mike Duffy claiming that his seldom visited cottage in PEI was his residence, and now we find that that appears to be not so much the exception as the rule, or at least, a loophole several other senators didn’t mind exploiting.

The remarkable thing is that we heard outrage from within the Senate. The very people who were throwing Mike Duffy under the bus, as it turns out, perhaps should be joining him there.

As I followed the Mike Duffy trial, before all this other stuff surfaced, it struck me that his defense, that there were few rules in place regarding spending and the ones that were there weren’t enforced, spoke to the legality of the issue, but totally ignored the ethics or morals involved. I get that, lawyers and courtrooms are about what’s legal, not what’s right. 

So I concluded that Duffy was simply a man who lacked moral character.

What I find incredibly sad is that he was far from alone in that. What this whole sorry mess has proven beyond any doubt is that some/many/most? Senators are not capable of doing the right thing minus ironclad rules.

Honourable Senators? At the risk of tarring all with the same brush, not so much. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 11 Jun 2015 00:13:31 +0000
The PMO's trifecta of blunders in Iraq is a communications fiasco


When a company or organization does something it shouldn’t, and its reputation has taken a hit, it’s usually because of a lapse in judgment. In these cases a sincere apology and a genuine effort to put things right is enough to address the issue.

The bigger mistake is when the guilty party refuses to admit it did anything wrong, offers a half-assed apology, or worst of all, tries to avoid responsibility by lying.

Its not unusual to see a company or organization commit one of these sins, sometimes two, but when it is three, it can almost always be traced back to terrible management, incompetence, or arrogance. And usually coupled with inexperience.

So it is surprising that none other than the Prime Minister’s office committed the latest trifecta.


First, during the Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Iraq last week, the PMO ignored a Department of National Defense directive not to publicly show the faces of Special Forces personnel by doing just that in videos prepared for purely partisan purposes.

If it was an honest mistake, it should have been immediately admitted with an appropriate, unqualified apology. It still would have been bad, especially given that the PMO was told about this security protocol in two separate briefings before the trip. But the way the Prime Minister’s Office handled it only made it worse, much worse.

There is a lesson here in responsible, ethical communications. Consider how it played out, and see if you don’t agree that at every turn the PMO dug the hole deeper.


When criticism of showing the faces of Canadian soldiers on anti-ISIL missions was made, the PMO first brushed it off, saying they hadn’t violated any security rules.

When pushed further, the PMO said the Department of National Defense cleared the videos for use.

The DND was quick to say absolutely no way would they ever allow such a thing as it puts the soldiers in additional and unnecessary danger.

That was lie Number 1.

When they were cornered on that, they continued to try to minimize the breach, saying there were concerns over “a few specific images” and so they took the video down from the Prime Minister’s website so the protocols could be reviewed. and after a second review it was decided the videos should never have been posted.

That was lie Number 2.

There was never any second review. The protocols are crystal clear. The faces of Special Forces personnel cannot be shown. No exceptions.


In short, the PMO blew it big time by posting the videos, and then made matters worse first by denying they did anything wrong, then by their inability to be honest in dealing with it, and then falling short with their weasel-like apology.

There’s a number of effective communications rules that were ignored here, but even more basic, it goes back to what our mothers taught us, or at least tried to - when you mess up, fess up, and above all, be honest.

Isn’t it funny how doing the right thing is also the effective communications thing? The PMO has yet to learn this.  Or maybe it just did. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 11 May 2015 04:36:34 +0000
Clawing back a penny from kids? Really? What was this Irving company thinking?


I see in my Daily Gleaner this morning that the company has changed its mind about cutting all paper carriers pay from 15 to 14 cents per paper. Those who walk their routes will get the penny back, but those who use a vehicle will continue to have their pay reduced because the company wanted to, in its words, “align with the falling cost of gasoline, which reduced expenses for carriers who use their cars for delivery.”

Back to that in a minute, but what confuses me is that until CBC reported the corporate decision to reduce the paperboys and papergirls pay by a penny, I hadn’t heard about it.


And I don’t know why. Because every morning, as regular as day follows night, the young lad that delivers our paper never misses. It doesn’t matter how cold or dark it is, how hard it is raining, or how much snow he has to tramp through to get to the mailbox, he delivers.


So I never missed a paper, and I always read it. But I don’t recall reading about Brunswick News reducing the amount they pay that little guy and the other carriers.

And this reduction took place several weeks ago so it’s not as if CBC simply beat them to the punch.


But what a difference a day makes. The CBC breaks the story, the social media kicks in with outrage about how this is a new low for the Irving company, the pressure hits, and Irving partially reverses the decision because “we have listened to people’s concerns and we understand their reactions”.

Translation – we’ve got to do some damage control here. 

The reduction from 15 to 14 cents per delivered paper remains in effect for those who drive their rounds because the price of gas is less than it used to be. This begs a couple of questions. First, how much of an increase did these carriers get when the price of gas soared? And second, the price of gas is now increasing again, so will the pay cut be rescinded to align with that?

From a communications point of view, the fact we wouldn’t even know about how the company is treating its carriers if not for CBC speaks to one of the downsides of the near monopoly ownership of the print media in this province.

It’s pretty clear this decision was only reversed because the Irving owned company  was shamed into it. And they had the odds stacked in their favour because they owned the papers and were probably pretty sure they wouldn’t be exposed in those pages.

But the odds were also that it would get out at some point, so why would a company make this decision in the first place, and risk looking pretty petty for a penny a paper? (How’s that for alliteration? but I disgress.) You have to wonder what the discussions were around the table that produced this decision to pinch a penny.


A large corporation taking pennies from school children just because they can. The optics are absolutely terrible. It’s been so frigidly cold lately, the better discussion should have been around finding some way to reward them.

A couple of images come to mind - Ebenezer Scrooge rubbing his hands in greed, and this - Fagin, from Oliver:


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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 12 Feb 2015 19:29:01 +0000
Poor communications in Bathurst police shooting leads to the inevitable

In crisis communications, in other words at times when your reputation hangs in the balance, you better make darn sure that you don't come off as trying to cover anything up.

But as often as not, it is at these very times – when your reputation is hanging out there, that people tend to hunker down under the false impression that if they just lay low, whatever it is will blow over.  

It is a communications mistake of the first order, but one that is not that rare – it is human nature driven.


The latest example is the fatal shooting by Bathurst Police Monday morning of a 51-year old businessman from Tracadie. From the scant details available so far, Michel Vienneau got off a Via Rail train at the Bathurst station, and when he and the woman he was with got in their car, they were surrounded by armed police.

From there, who knows, but according to the woman several people with guns approached the car. She says she and Michel tried to get out of there and in their haste they struck one of the armed men and that is when Vienneau was shot. The woman says they did not know the men approaching the car were police.


How much of this is accurate? Don’t know, because aside from verifying that police shot the driver, they are saying nothing.

The woman says it is a case of mistaken identity; that Michel did nothing wrong.

The Bathurst police have handed over the investigation to the Nova Scotia RCMP, and this is where the communications gets worse. Rather than being definitive that all facts will come out once the investigation is complete, something that the public should be able to expect in a case like this, a spokesperson for the RCMP refused to say whether the results of the investigation would be made public.

So here’s a situation where a man is dead by a police bullet, the police force is being investigated by another police force, neither force is saying much of anything, and the suggestion is out there that the public may never find out what happened.

If the police wanted to set the stage for innuendo and rumours to run rampant, this is certainly the formula.

A French newspaper in the area is apparently reporting that the officer who approached the car was wearing a hoodie and had his gun drawn. Accurate? Again, who knows, but it is out there, and creates an image for the public that accurate or not, suggests why the guy in the car may have been understandably scared and struck an officer in his hurry to get away.

Most people are fair-minded. Most people realize it is early days and that the investigation will take time, and must be thorough. Most people don’t rush to judgment. But in a case like this people expect at least some basic information, and assurances that in due course the truth will be known.

And in the absence of any of that, people will and do jump to conclusions. And they will be cynical.

Want to see what I mean? Go to the CBC website and look at the comments under the story on this that was posted yesterday

People are jumping to conclusions. A couple of examples:

“Let me guess.........the official police report.... two years from now will say the police did nothing wrong.”

If this murdered man was really the target of a legitimate police investigation that would have been the first thing the police would have said. He was ISIS or Al Qaida or he was part of a drug investigation or Mafia but strangely enough there is nothing but this is an incident. There silence is telling!”

It is unfortunate that the authorities won’t say that eventually we will find out what actually happened. That one assurance would be enough for many.

I expect they will revisit that decision over the next day or two. Transparency within our police force is simply too fundamental to our society for people to accept anything less.

In the meantime, so far at least, the authorities are falling short with their communications.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 14 Jan 2015 03:13:25 +0000
The Crisis Communications around the Dal Dentistry School scandal

I’m watching with interest the way the scandal at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry is playing out. One thing for sure — I am glad I’m not Richard Florizone.

As president, he is charged with finding an appropriate and fair way to deal with this situation and, at the same time, restore the institution’s reputation and credibility, while trying to ensure that alumni donations don’t dry up.


Moreover, he’s doing all this amid a divided and emotionally charged public. On one side, there are those who are demanding the heads of the male students involved on a platter. On the other side, there are those who see it as bad, but not terrible.

No question, what these fourth-year students who were participants in this so-called "gentlemen's club" did was stupid and about as ungentlemanly as you can get. Hard to believe in this day and age that none of them twigged onto the fact that a Facebook page with such content might become public. Or if they did entertain that possibility, considered that it could cause some grief. Either way, you have to wonder about their judgment.


As for the content, of course, it was disrespectful to women. As a male from an earlier generation, though, I remember my college days and those times when we guys would get together and talk in some pretty basic terms about the females in our class. It was never in violent or hate terms, in fact anything but, but trust me, it was pretty graphic discussion. And from some female friends I've spoken with, young women weren’t above doing the same. The key difference is back then we didn’t have social media. And I don’t think my experiences were all that unique. So it would be a little hypocritical for a lot of us to pile on in outrage and disgust.

Watching the media coverage of this situation, I am amazed at the loaded language being thrown around, such as calling the female dental students survivors. Survivors? Really? That sure makes them sound like victims. I suspect the females in that class are strong, self-assured women who can look after themselves. But that’s conjecture – I don’t know them, just as I suspect those who are labeling them as victims and survivors don’t know them. The rhetoric surrounding this emotionally laden situation makes the handling of it that much more difficult.


From a crisis communications point of view, I appreciate that President Florizone is trying to be fair, but he has made some fundamental crisis communications mistakes. His biggest is not providing clarity of position. No clarity of position creates confusion and that serves no one. So much has been written about what is happening — much of it contradictory — it's hard to determine where it will end up.

Some reports contend that Florizone was aware of this issue four months ago. If so, why didn’t he do something before it blew up? And what about this restorative justice approach? The president said he decided on this course after meeting with the female students involved. It was what they wanted, he said. But now, some of those female students are emphatically saying that that is not what they want and that restorative justice is being forced on them.

Then there is the whole thing about not naming the dozen or so male students. I understand the hesitation, but not naming them puts all of Dal's male fourth-year dentistry students under a cloud of suspicion that could adversely affect their ability to obtain a license to practice. Some provincial dentistry bodies have already requested the names on a confidential basis.

There's no doubt that this is a complicated situation with many related issues. From a crisis communications perspective until there is clarity of position things will not improve. In fact, the lack of clarity is feeding emotions, creating pressure to act decisively. While decisiveness is often a good approach, haste is not.

On the positive side, all but the most fervent, would probably agree that President Florizone desires to do the right thing with consequences for the students that are appropriate. The problem is that he’s in a no-win situation. Some, perhaps even many, will not be satisfied with anything less than expulsion. The big question for him is this: Should he sacrifice the budding careers and futures of a few young men who did something stupid just to make the crisis go away?

As with many crisis communications issues, there's no easy answer.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Fri, 09 Jan 2015 01:04:54 +0000
Fantino's exit from Veteran's Affairs shows image matters, but substance remains an issue


Just last week, on New Year’s Day in fact, I was reading my Daily Gleaner and came across a guest commentary by Julian Fantino. I read it with interest, to see whether he was finally going to apologize for the way he as Minister specifically, and his government in general, treat veterans. I realized he wouldn’t have been the author, and that the essay would have had to have been if not written, at least approved by the PMO. But an admission that he screwed up, followed by a pledge to learn from that and do better, I thought, would be a good way to try to start off the New Year on a better footing.

But alas, it was not to be. Not a word of attrition, just a feeble attempt at damage control.

Fast forward five days and Fantino is gone. Not from cabinet, but from Veteran’s Affairs.

It is a move that was long overdo, but the fact the Prime Minister finally made it says something about him, and about the importance of communications.

Prime Minister Harper’s habit is to defend his Ministers no matter how badly they screw up. On the other hand, he is very calculating and going into an election year he knew the danger of a continuing war with veterans. So the latter trumps the former.

Fantino meantime, is a study in the importance of image to political success.


When you think of Fantino, what image comes to mind? Is it the one of him ignoring the wife of a veteran with PTSD as she tries to chase him down an Ottawa hallway, or the one of him walking out on veterans after he left them waiting 70 minutes for a promised meeting, and not being able to handle it when they were upset?

He could have done all kinds of wonderful things for veterans after those incidents, but the fact they were caught on camera pretty much determines that those images will remain forever how he will be defined.

That’s the image, but on the substance side there were problems too, and they continue. Promising $200 million in new spending for veteran’s mental health, but ignoring to add that that was to be over the next 50 years, a detail that surfaced only later. In fact, that announcement itself smelled of damage control because it came just before the Auditor-General’s report critical of the way the government treats its veterans who have PTSD.

And the list goes on. Politically, changing the Minister perhaps deals with the image problem of a Minister that doesn’t appear to particularly like veterans, and certainly didn’t seem to have much time to bother with their problems. But it doesn’t dismiss the bigger issue of a government who’s talk about respecting veterans hasn’t been backed up by action.

Removing a problematic Minister may be part of the solution, but the bigger problem remains, of a government that has earned the reputation of indifference by continuing to come up short in service delivery to veterans.

The new Minister of Veterans Affairs has his work cut out for him. A former soldier, he may be able to empathize in a way Fantino never could. That would be a start. Or at the very least, if he performs his duties without ticking veterans off so much, that would be refreshing too.


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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 05 Jan 2015 22:31:42 +0000
Ghomeshi blew it on communications front too


When I blogged about the Jian Ghomeshi mess last week, I mentioned that I found it a fascinating study in crisis communications. The developments since then have made it even more compelling, especially the circumstances and misunderstanding that led to the whole thing going public.

Crisis communications 101 has a basic rule. It is don’t lie. In Ghomeshi’s now infamous Facebook post and by other details that have since emerged, it seems pretty obvious he did, to his bosses at the CBC, to Navigator (the crisis communications firm he hired), and to his fans and other Canadians who read his Facebook essay.


It still isn’t clear whether Navigator wrote that Facebook entry, although the nature of the writing suggests a very strategic, professional touch, so probably so. But I can’t imagine they would have, had they known that the Toronto Star was about to blow it apart with a story in which four women alleged that Ghomeshi abused them.

Any crisis communications consultancy that got blindsided like that has every right to walk away, which is apparently how it went down.

As a crisis communications strategy, if you can call it that, that Facebook entry was, in retrospect as ill-advised as you can get. It was brilliant for that short window between its posting and the Toronto Star story, because it worked in positioning Ghomeshi as the victim of a jilted ex-lover and an ambitious freelance writer. But now it stands as testament of a man who tried to mislead everybody.


But now, there is even more to suggest how stupid it was.

As a result of this story, I discovered Canadaland, the podcast site of said freelance journalist, a reporter named Jesse Brown. And from what I see he’s a damn good one. The site is a look at the business of journalism in Canada, sort of an on-line Canadian version of CNN’s Reliable Sources, but with an investigative journalism bent.

Brown is the reporter who was actually behind the story getting out.

Understandably nervous because he knew he would be attacked and quite possibly sued, he took what he had, the allegations of four women who say Ghomeshi sexually and physically abused them, to the Toronto Star, which of course has more resources to deal with lawsuit threats. The Star assigned one of their investigative reporters, Kevin Donovan, to work with him. So there was more digging, but the story was put on hold because they couldn’t prove the allegations by the four women they talked to, plus, they wanted to remain anonymous.


What happened next is incredible. The timeline is important here as it speaks to why the story came out when it did. (The following is paraphrased from Brown’s latest podcast, which also offers up some interesting insight into the working environment on the Q show. You can listen to it here)

In June, Brown and Donovan confronted Ghomeshi and his lawyers with what they had, looking for his side of the story. The response was the threat of a lawsuit. But as well, this prompted Ghomeshi to go to CBC management and tell them that a story may come out that suggests he abused some women in non-consensual sex. He confessed about his strange sexual preferences, but insisted that it was always consensual and that if anyone says differently, it would be a lie.


Then, as you can imagine, Ghomeshi likely checked the Toronto Star every morning, looking to see if they published anything. It wasn’t there and it wasn’t there.

Jump ahead to October 20th. Brown tells listeners to his podcast that he had information that, in his words, is a “monster story”, a huge revelation that will be worse than embarrassing.

Brown, considering the timing, assumes that this is what prompted Ghomeshi to present CBC management with the evidence that apparently he felt would exonerate him, but in fact that CBC saw what he showed them as the last straw, and fired him that weekend.

But here’s the kicker. Brown says when he was hinting at a monster story, it wasn’t about Ghomeshi at all, it was about CBC reporter Terry Milewski.


As a result though, Ghomeshi got fired and posted his Facebook confessional, and this is what prompted the Toronto Star to run its story, which started the whole chain of events of more and more women coming forward, a police investigation, and now it has grown even bigger by opening up a whole dialogue about women and sexual abuse. But as Brown says, that Toronto Star story wasn’t imminent. If not for Ghomeshi assuming that October 20th podcast was a reference to him, none of this would ever have surfaced, at least not at this time.

Talk about the power of social and traditional media. This is a great example of the two communication forms complementing each other. And in the process, taking something that is very ugly, and transforming it into something that just might lead to some positive social change around the way women who are sexually abused are treated. Dark clouds and silver linings come to mind.   

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 03 Nov 2014 21:48:15 +0000
Ghomeshi, sex, public reputations and PR strategies


Talk about your interesting case study in crisis communications - this Jian Ghomeshi story has it all.

I mean, what a mix – a well-loved, high profile celebrity, the cornerstone of the CBC’s effort to appeal to younger listeners, a firing that nobody saw coming, followed by the pre-emptive strike of a Facebook entry of revelations about kinky but consensual sex. But then maybe not consensual, with allegations of three women half his age who claim he sexually abused them, as well as allegations of sexual harassment within the CBC.

And as if that isn’t enough, enter a high priced, high-powered PR/crisis communications agency, a multi-million dollar lawsuit, and a twitterverse divided over who the victim or victims is.


It’s not for me to say if Ghomeshi is the victim of a smear campaign by a jilted ex-lover of the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” variety, or whether he is a sick puppy who is finally getting his comeuppance. Lord knows, there has been enough rush to judgment on both sides already.  

But unlike the hundreds or thousands of people who know for sure, I don’t. So I’ll focus on the communications strategies at play here.

First, there’s the rare Sunday afternoon news release from the CBC, which said “information came to our attention recently, that in CBC’s judgment, precludes us from continuing our relationship with Jian Ghomeshi.” And then they said they would have nothing more to say.

That was crafted solely to keep lawyers happy, not to explain why the CBC fired him. It’s tantamount to my going into a room where you and your friends are gathered and saying, “I heard what you did and it’s disgusting and I don’t want to ever have anything to do with you again”, then turning around and walking out.

All that does is fuel the fires of speculation, and if you don’t say something, those fires are going to run rampant. So CBC pretty much forced his hand.


And respond he did, in spades. A fifty million dollar lawsuit, then an apparent tell-all of a Facebook entry, no doubt crafted by Navigator, the PR firm retained to salvage Ghomeshi’s reputation and in the process try to bring public opinion around to the point where CBC could see their way clear to rehire him. That last part is a long shot, but hey, Michael Vick is back in the NFL after being convicted of involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring. This guy hanged and drowned dogs that didn’t perform well and that didn’t kill his career, so there you go. Strange things happen.

As crisis communications goes, strategically the Facebook essay was bang on for several key reasons.

1     It allowed Ghomeshi to get ahead of the story; to get his version out there first.

2     It positioned him as the victim.

3     It also positioned him as courageous, with the detail he provided seeming to lay bare his private life, especially when he framed it as his choice rather than taking the CBC offer to go away quietly.

At this point, judging from what I was seeing on social media, most people were on side, condemning the CBC for unfairly firing him because “it was nobody’s business what he does in his bedroom with another consenting adult” and supporting him against the vindictive former girlfriend.

And that’s probably where it would have stayed if not for the Toronto Star. The Star story, which had been in the works since the spring, changed the narrative completely. Through interviews with three different young women, a story emerges that paints Ghomeshi in a much darker light; in fact as an abuser, throwing doubt of the suggestion that the bedroom antics were in fact consensual and all in good fun.

With this story out there public opinion turned dramatically. He still has his supporters, but a big percentage seems to be siding with the three women, even though they are unidentified and have never brought complaints to the police. Usually, that would hurt their credibility, but their explanation of fear of being victimized again by public opinion, resonated with many.


An interesting point is that the Star wasn’t ready to run the story because it didn’t have proof, and only did because of Ghomeshi’s Facebook essay convinced them it was now in the public interest. So as well crafted as his entry was, publishing it may have backfired. But that’s simply conjecture, because the story may have come out eventually anyway.

So what now? Well, watch for more revelations. Maybe other women will be prompted to say they too were abused by the former CBC host, or maybe the PR firm he hired will find something that discredits their stories.

And then there’s the CBC which may have to deal with failing to act on a sexual harassment complain against Ghomeshi by a woman who worked on his show and has since left. And then there’s that $50 Million lawsuit.  I expect there may be a morality clause in his contract but that hasn’t been established yet either, but I would think that that would quash any legal action, but what do I know, I’m not a lawyer. 

It’s a high stakes reputational power play, and there are many hands to be played out yet.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Tue, 28 Oct 2014 02:29:01 +0000
An animal cruelty exposé, and the poor communications by the federal agency in the middle of it


When your company or government department is the subject of a media exposé, that is never a good thing. And a poor communications response only makes it worse.

The most recent edition of CTV’s W5 is the latest case in point. It stands as the most recent example of totally incompetent communications – the kind of “don’t do this” examples that find their way into media training workshops.

But poor communications is the small part of the problem for both Western Hog Exchange, a major hog processing facility in Red Deer, Alberta, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

If you didn’t catch it, you might want to check it out on the CTV website. Or you might not. It’s pretty disturbing.


The hidden camera footage shows widespread abuse, including beating pigs too sick or injured to move, kicking them and zapping them with electric prods, and using bolt cutters to remove the highly sensitive tusks off boars, with no pain killing medication. And much of this under the eyes and apparent tacit approval of government inspectors who are supposed to be there to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

The show followed the usual pattern of such media investigations, including confronting the company CEO with the video evidence to get his response.

In this case the man who was shown the footage was Western Hog Exchange Chairman Brent Moen. He said what you would expect him to say, that he was disturbed at the video and will act to rectify the situation.

The more telling thing is when W5 tried to get a comment from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  You’d think they would be anxious to reassure Canadians that they take their responsibilities seriously, that’s what you’d think. But rather, according to W5, they were stonewalled at every turn, repeated requests for an interview ignored. Here's the email exchange between W5 and CFIA. 

So they did what shows like W5 do. Reporter Victor Malarek, complete with a camera crew in tow, approached CFIA President Bruce Archibald in the parking lot outside his office. The result, with the cameras rolling was a major communications fail. Total stonewalling with the apparent message for viewers that it’s not an issue he really cares about.

Then it gets worse. You can imagine the discussion within the department, with management and communications people realizing W5 now has video of the agency’s President sounding like an arsehole and coming off as someone quite indifferent to the animal cruelty documented by the hidden camera. It’s not looking good.


So the CFIA finally decides to call W5 back. But the purpose isn’t to finally confront the issue of their inspector’s apparent dereliction of their duties; it’s to protect the President. W5 says the agency agreed to offer up someone for an interview, but only if the network promised not to use the footage of the President taken the day before.  W5 refused, and so the conditional offer became part of the story, as did the ambush interview.

The exposé went to air, and the next day the CFIA announced it has launched an internal review.  No surprise there, most could see that coming.

The problem is, of course, larger than a communications issue. A lame release stating “CFIA management has met with all inspection staff in the area to reinforce our values of courage, rigour and respect” falls considerably short, on the heels of video that shows CFIA inspectors apparently complicit in animal abuse and obvious violations of regulations in place to ensure humane treatment.

I admit I have a soft spot for animals. I’m no bleeding heart, as I have no problem with animals being slaughtered for food. However, I believe we have a responsibility to treat these animals with respect, and that includes allowing them a natural life and a humane death.

I don’t think I am alone in that. I hope not.

W5, along with the animal rights group that shot the video did us a service by shining a light on a situation that most of us would find disturbing. 

Both the slaughterhouse and the CFIA promise to do better.

But judging from how the government agency has handled it so far, their communications doesn’t leave the impression it’s really that big a deal to them and it certainly doesn’t instill any confidence that improvements will be made. Rather, it smells of damage control, designed to get them by until this whole thing blows over.

If that’s a misleading impression, they only have themselves to blame.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 13 Oct 2014 23:47:49 +0000
Twitter comes of age in Moncton tragedy

Like many, I heard about what was unfolding in Moncton last Wednesday evening from Twitter. And like many I was overcome with the horror of it, and the profound sadness at the loss of those lives and the bravery of the emergency responders who had to venture into the face of danger while everyone else was trying to avoid it.

I spend Wednesday night and into the wee hours of Thursday with my computer on my lap, and dial surfing for coverage on television.

The drama of what was unfolding brought me to back to 1974 and the police murders in Moncton. I was a junior reporter at a Moncton radio station then, and in those days, everyone turned to radio for the most recent information. One of the murderers was on the loose for quiet some time so you had the same kind of tenseness throughout the city as the search for him continued.


Flash ahead four decades and it's the same scenario but my how the dissemination of information, and the role of journalism has changed.

Radio is a shadow of what it was then, having long ago surrendered the biggest part of their newsrooms on the alter of profit. So people had learned long ago they couldn't rely on radio for updates on community emergencies like they used to. In fact we have a generation that doesn't even know it used to be different.

Now it is about social media, especially until live television catches up.

Once thing that struck me about last Wednesday is that, in Moncton, it is when Twitter came of age. Just as it had in Boston with the Marathon bombers a year before.

Through Moncton, across New Brunswick and beyond, people turned to Twitter, and it had blown up, with all manner of citizen journalist spreading important information to stay away from certain areas.


What happened that night and over the following hours until it ended, was a test for traditional journalists as well as for the RCMP, and it underlined that they both do have a definitive place in this world of social media, and that place is not to compete with it, but to engage in it, and be the voice of verification.

Social media has caused trepidation of both mainstream journalists and police organizations over where it would leave them when it comes to communications and doing their job. After all, social media is something they can't control and in an emergency situation more so than at any other time, police want to have control. And for journalists, with their responsibility to check their facts, a detail no one else has to worry about, how do they compete with those who have no such restrictions?

These are legitimate concerns, which makes the way events unfolded Wednesday night a most interesting study in communications, and what we witnessed was a glimpse into the new face of breaking news journalism.

I saw a few things. There were unsubstantiated rumours, but Twitter wasn't rampant with them. But more than that I saw traditional journalists, the people whose names I was familiar with heavily engaged in Twitter, but careful to separate fact from rumour and working to verify. We learned to trust their tweets over others, as they worked to legitimize first hand accounts. It was a healthy combination of eyewitness information, verified through solid journalism, for the benefit of the public.

I saw responsibility. After police requested that social media refrain from giving away dangerous information such as where the police were, people complied, and any who didn't, quickly saw the peer pressure come to bear. This was social media, a so-called uncontrollable medium, policing itself.

The communications challenge of the police in a case like this is to maintain control of the message, so that social media doesn't run rampant, and police are acknowledged as the voice of authority. In this case, the RCMP did just that, and given the enormity of events, that is a considerable accomplishment.

As for that paywall thing with the Irving papers, I don't know what that was about, but there was a lot of criticism over Brunswick News failure to take it down. I don't know why they didn't. I'd like to hear an explanation, and I expect a lot of print reporters would too, as they would have liked to have been able to reach that broader audience. I am out of the country as I write this so maybe it has been explained and I missed it. But if there was one failing of traditional journalism this night, this was it. I don't know the technical side, but I do know the Boston Globe lifted theirs when the search was on for the Boston Marathon bombers.

One final though as I end this blog. This isn't about communication, but as someone whose firm has worked with RCMP on and off going back 20 years, our sincere condolences for their fallen brothers and an equally sincere congratulations and thank you for a job well done.

The force has had a lot of scandal to deal with over recent years and much of it deserved. But what happened in Moncton, for all its tragedy, served to remind all of us that the RCMP has much to be proud of. The bravery, humanity and professionalism we all witnessed showed our national police force at its best. That is the RCMP I was brought up to respect.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 09 Jun 2014 11:48:08 +0000
#myNYPD - talk about a social media fiasco


People who know a whole lot more about social media than I do tell us that if you are a company trying to compete, or an organization trying to build support, or enhance your reputation, you have to engage in social media. And we subscribe to that. Social media is a key part of just about every communications strategy we develop. Of course it is.

But here’s a cautionary tale, complements of the New York City Police Department. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I suspect it was the result of somebody heeding the advice that you have to interact with your stakeholders, in this case the people of New York.

So to facilitate this social media interacting, somebody representing the NYPD thought it would be a really good idea to go on Twitter and invite people to jump in and share their photos of the police interacting with the public. They asked them to do this using the hashtag #myNYPD

What they got, I dare say, isn’t quite what they expected or were hoping for.  They tweeted this call for photos Tuesday morning. By Tuesday evening more than 70,000 people responded, making #myNYPD the top trending topic in the United States.

Only five, count ‘em, five, pictures were of the sort that the police department choose to retweet.


The overwhelming response were with photos of alleged police brutality – a bloodied 84 year old who purportedly was being manhandled by the police for jaywalking, a woman being hauled by the hair with the caption “the NYPD will also help you de-tangle your hair”, and it went on and on.

The police department lost control of the #myNYPD almost immediately.

What went wrong? After all, they were trying to engage people on social media, just like we are all told we should.

According to many of the social media experts who have weighed in on this, the police department’s big mistake was choosing the wrong platform. Twitter, they note, is mainly used by young people. Young people, like the people involved in the Occupy movement. The same movement that clashed with New York City police last summer, where thousands were arrested for protesting. Young people, who especially on social media will say exactly what want to, totally unfiltered.

The experts say the NYPD should have instead, ran a contest on Facebook, inviting people to submit their photos of interaction with the police. That way, they’d have control over what photos get posted.

That makes sense but I can’t help thinking something even more basic. If you were looking for people to react publicly to your organization, in a way that reflects what they think of your organization, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a good reputation in the first place? Especially with the very group you are targeting? I don’t know – call it common sense.

Apparently overwhelmed by this social media fiasco, the police department has not responded. But that’s the thing – they have lost control. It’s not as if they can stop it. In fact the newest development is that this whole thing is spreading to other American cities, including #myLAPD and #myMiamiPD.

No putting this genie back into the bottle. No reports of it spreading to Canada yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:44:34 +0000
CBC Management bungling of conflict issues making matters worse


At the risk of appearing to be obsessed with the CBC’s ethical breaches, this is another blog on that whole issue, but this time from a crisis communications perspective.

Because of bungling of this issue by CBC management, it has become somewhat of a crisis for them. You may not have heard much about it, especially if you rely on CBC as your main source of news, but it has gotten traction elsewhere, in various newspapers and online publications, and it is a considerable buzz all over the internet.

I blogged about it first a couple of weeks ago, arguing that viewers have a right to know that when Rex Murphy rails against critics of the oil sands, that he is paid by that same oil industry to give speeches.  No problem with his comments, but he is in conflict and it should be declared, and if he wasn’t declaring it, the CBC should.

CBC’s extremely lame response was that CBC’s ethical standards don’t apply to him because he’s a freelancer.

Then the other shoe dropped when it came out that Peter Mansbridge as well, accepted oil sands money to speak. That could explain the CBC’s reluctance to force Murphy to declare his conflict, but it creates quite the problem for CBC management, because the freelancer excuse certainly wouldn’t apply to their Chief Correspondent.

So what is the explanation?

Well, so far there isn’t one. The closest we get is a blog from Mansbridge in which he says that management gave him permission, and that that spoke only about journalism, as if this was about the content. He avoided the real issue – the fact that money changed hands. And from CBC Editor in Chief Janet McGuire, the same person who said Murphy doesn’t have to declare his conflict because he’s not on staff, comes only a comment that their policies are being reviewed.

But that’s as inadequate as her freelancer excuse, because the CBC Code of Ethics already states that what Mansbridge did was a no-no. No review is necessary, just an enforcement of the rules that already exist.

What makes it a crisis issue is that it hits directly at the issue of the CBC’s credibility. For any news organization, credibility is its currency. Without it, you have nothing of value to offer. The CBC I remember got that and took it seriously.

But what’s going on now has diminished CBC’s credibility and the fact CBC management is continuing to bungle the handling of it only makes it worse.  Hoping an issue goes away is not a good crisis communications strategy.

This is not rocket science. Peter Mansbridge simply has to tell us it was a lapse in judgment and apologize.  And CBC management has to tell us it values its credibility and will be more vigilant from here on.

Until it is dealt with Mansbridge will continue to be the elephant in the room whenever ethical issues arise.  If they continue to ignore it, it sends the message that the CBC’s credibility is not that important to them.

Does it matter? I just watched the Sunday night edition of The National, which included excellent coverage on Ukraine from Susan Ormiston, one of many outstanding CBC journalists. There is nothing to suggest her reports aren’t professional in every respect, and the same with those of her counterparts. But it reflects on them that they work for an organization where ethical standards, at least at the moment, aren’t what they used to be, or should be. It opens the door for viewers to wonder, and that’s unfair to them. So yes, it matters.   

So why the unconvincing response? Why is nobody at CBC standing up and addressing this – saying they value the public trust and will do what they need to do to restore it? Instead, lame excuses and silence.

I should add that while CBC management is twiddling its collection thumbs, the issue has been discussed in panels and interviews on CBC’s The Current, As It Happens, and Q. And good on them. Might not be the best career move, but it shows some producers get it even if their masters don’t.

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 03 Mar 2014 04:27:15 +0000
Rob Ford, James Moore, and political apologies


In recent days we have had two politicians apologizing for comments they wish they hadn't made. Rob Ford, yet again – how many times is that, and also this week, Federal Industry Minister James Moore.

It's interesting to look at both of these apologies from a communications point of view, with the question – do they suffice or is it damage done?

First, an interesting parallel is they both came reluctantly, not something that suggests sincerity, which is something an apology should be going for.  

With Ford, the apology came after first refusing to apologize and in fact repeating his insinuation that a Toronto Star reporter was a pedophile. With Moore, the apology didn't come until after he accused the media of taking him out of context.

Why the turnaround? With Ford it took a libel threat. With Moore, it took an audiotape that showed he did in fact say what the media said he said.

But they did eventually apologize even if they didn't want to, so the question is, were they sufficient to undo the damage?

With Ford, does it matter? He has zero credibility so it is unlikely anybody except the extremely ill informed would take anything he says seriously anyway. At this point the libel suit is going ahead. I'm no lawyer but I wonder if a defense argument might be that since his credibility is so poor, his comment didn't cause any reputational damage to the reporter. Wouldn't that be ironic – winning in court because you're a habitual liar?

With James Moore it's more serious. His apology is for his reply to a question on child poverty. His response was basically that children going hungry aren't his problem. The exact quote: “Is it my job to feed my neighbour's child? I don't think so.”

As you might expect, opposition politicians and many left-leaning members of the public were quick to jump on him for being callous.  And not only him – some saw his comment as an honest glimpse into the heart of the Harper government.

He later made an apology that seemed sincere, at least compared to Ford's, but that's the thing with apologies – they are contingent on who is making them and how that person is perceived by those who hear it. For those who believe the Harper government could care less about hungry kids, Moore's comment simply fuelled that perception and any apology is simply dismissed as damage control.

But even to non-partisans, no matter how carefully your apology is worded, and this one was worded well, he still said, in so many words, that hungry children aren't his problem, and he has to live with that. For a federal politician, and in this case one who may have eyes on a leadership run, it will be hard to walk away from. Tantamount to trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube some might say, especially when there will be rival politicians who will not forget, and will be more than ready to remind others so they don't either.

Apologies only go so far. 

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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Wed, 18 Dec 2013 21:31:00 +0000
Cpl. Francis medicinal marijuana smoking - a communications fail for the RCMP

A benefit of a solid communications policy is that it creates in the public mind the image you want people to have of your organization. And as you might expect, the higher profile the stories, the stronger the image that is created. Usually these aren't one-of things, they are the product of the accumulation of stories that mold an impression of an organization, for better or worse.

Which brings us to the RCMP, and the story of Cpl. Ron Francis tearfully turning over his uniform to the force.

It was an emotional scene both at his home when fellow RCMP officers arrived to demand his working uniform, a scene caught by family on video and shared with the media, and the next day when he arrived at J Division to surrender his ceremonial red serge, again an emotional scene and again, it's caught by reporters.

All of this prompted by Cpl. Francis being seen, in his red serge, smoking a joint he was legally entitled to smoke, because he has a medicinal prescription for marijuana, prescribed to treat his PTSD.

So here's a guy with severe psychological issues, brought on by a stressful job that included attending at an accident scene where a childhood friend died and having to work with his dead body, having to arrest both his brother and at another time sister, and allegedly having to deal with a death plot against him. Plus all the other stresses that go with his line of work.

He developed PTSD.

While this is obviously an issue for him it is also an issue for the RCMP. Cpl. Francis says he smoked his legal joint in public, and in uniform, to draw attention to the fact the force isn't responding to the needs of members with PTSD.

No question he has received attention, but the way the RCMP handled it has led to it receiving attention too, and not necessarily in a good way.

The force does have programs to treat members with PTSD but whether they are adequate is subjective. So maybe his protest was over the top – and I can certainly see where the visual of the Cpl. having a hooter while in his red serge could make the RCMP brass see red beyond the colour of the tunic.

But the way they responded probably did more to hurt than help the reputation of a force that has not recovered from the reputational hit it took over the Robert Dziekanski tasering incident in the Vancouver airport and the subsequent attempt to cover it up. Then there were the allegations of sexual harassment from a parade of female members. With each scandal the respect for the force diminishes, because they are never handled well, and by “well” I mean in a way that re-establishes public trust.

So now there is this new issue. Obviously the RCMP can't have members smoking dope in public, in uniform, even when it is a prescribed medication.

But given that this is a member with more than 20 years of apparently exemplary service, who is now hurting, the RCMP's reaction of sending officers to his home to collect his uniform smells of knee-jerk revenge for embarrassing them, rather than the kind of more compassionate response that you would think should be afforded a member.

Realize again this is an officer who arrested members of his own family, on the native reserve where he grew up and still lives. If that doesn't show dedication to the uniform I don't know what would.

You would think the RCMP, sensitive to its image, would want to show not only the public but also other officers that it cares about the welfare of members who serve and then because of that service, develop work-related mental health issues. But even the media comments by RCMP officials focused on policy and procedures with no hint of compassion.

Maybe there is more to it. Maybe Cpl. Francis had become unreasonable and a pain in the ass, but that's not the point. The point is that the force, in the ham-fisted way it has handled this, has come across to many as petty and vengeful, a far cry from the respect with which Canadians used to hold the RCMP, which now seems such a very long time ago.

Members, the vast majority of whom are working hard to live up to the ideal, deserve better from their superiors.

]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Sun, 01 Dec 2013 13:54:00 +0000
Rob Ford does not need crisis communications help


Just after Mayor Rob Ford's media scrum where he uttered words that, to put it mildly, you wouldn't expect from a mayor, especially in front of the media, I got an email from a friend. It read “Being Rob Ford's PR person must be the 7th level of hell.”

That, as well, puts it mildly.

As a crisis communications case study, he's a walking disaster. Suffice to say he continually breaks every rule in the book.

Did you believe him when he said yesterday that the latest allegations against him aren't true? Exactly. Not an ounce of credibility left.

These latest developments – the sexual stuff, the admission of buying illegal drugs while mayor, the apparent prostitutes, the admitted drinking and driving, the questionable company he keeps, the vehement denials of every accusation until he has to admit they are true - geeze, you can't make this stuff up.

So if you are his PR person, yeah, this is the 7th level of hell, but

crisis communications help is the last thing Rob Ford needs right now. Not that he appears ready to take any anyway, but what is unfolding here is well beyond a communications issue.

Hypothetically, if he were to wake up tomorrow morning and decide that he will get some professional crisis communications help, and whoever he brought in did do some things to start turning this train wreck around, that just might be the worst thing that could happen to him. 

Repairing his reputation would take a very long time if it is possible at all, but that's not the point. The point is that right now there is tremendous pressure on the mayor to get help – not communications help – addictions and mental health help. That's where the pressure needs to stay.

If a crisis communications consultant takes over and stops the bleeding in that they stop him from digging the hole deeper with every word he utters to the media, that pressure to get help would likely lessen. And, like any addict, he would take advantage of that. And, it will become all that much easier to resist getting help. And that, eventually, could kill him.

Communications is the lesser of his problems. For him, it is not where the focus needs to be. 


]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Fri, 15 Nov 2013 17:33:17 +0000
Stephen Harper, Mike Duffy, the PMO and failing crisis communications


In our crisis communications workshops, I always draw a bit of a chuckle when I use the analogy of biting ducks. I make the point that when you are trying to manage and control a crisis, the worst thing you can do is fail to get all the bad stuff out there, because it will leak, piece by piece and bit by bit, and so it is like getting bitten to death by ducks – it takes a long time, it's decidedly unpleasant, and in the end you are worst off than if you had just ‘fessed up and taken your lumps in the first place.


And then I give some examples to drive home the point. And I use some good ones, but next workshop you can bet that the first example for discussion will be the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the PMO vs. Mike Duffy.  I don't think there are any other examples as good as what's going down in Ottawa these days.


If ever there was an example of failed crisis communications, this is it.


The Prime Minister's position is that he didn't know what was going on. He didn't know about Nigel Wright paying off Duffy's expenses. Then he said Wright resigned, but now he says he fired him. He said Wright acted alone, but now we find out lots of people were in on it, and now we find out the Conservative Party's lawyer paid Duffy's legal bills. And still, the Prime Minister is sticking to his story that he wasn't in the loop even though now it appears those in on it, whatever “it” is, seems to have gone beyond the PMO and into the Conservative Party.


This is no longer about Duffy's expenses. It stopped being about that some time ago. Now it is about the apparent cover-up by the PMO. And that as well is a hallmark of a typical crisis. There's never one crisis, there's always two. A plane crashes, and the first crisis is the crash, the second is the public's loss of confidence in the airline. If it is a crisis based on someone's ethical shortcomings, often, the first crisis is the initial incident, and the second is the attempted cover-up.


On the CBC's Power and Politics last night, their viewer question was: How involved do you think the PM was in the Wright-Duffy deal? 96% of respondents replied “very”.  Mind you it was a very limited sample of Canadians and only those interested enough to forgo whatever drama or sitcom is on the other stations, so they may be more political nerd than average Canadian. But still, 96% is one heck of a majority, and to some extent you have to think that it is at least in some way reflective of average Canadian thinking.


Maybe the Prime Minister was kept in the dark for reasons of plausible deniability, but that doesn't matter because in crisis, the perception matters more than the reality.


And for Stephen Harper, the perception is terrible. The changing stories and the backtracking combined with his reputation as a micromanager means people simply cannot buy what he is selling.


That reputation of needing to be in control may be, more than anything else, why people see a disconnect. You'd think that if he were blind-sided by the revelation of the $90,000 cheque, that his next move would be to bring the staff of the PMO together and demand to know everything so there would be no more surprises. Isn't this what most bosses would do, let along someone given to micromanaging?


Point is, the optics are terrible. From a crisis communications point of view, he is failing badly.


For political junkies and anyone interested in communications, this is the best soap opera out there, complete with cliffhangers. Does Duffy have any more bombs to drop? Will enough Tories vote against the Prime Minister's wishes to have Duffy and the other two thrown out of the senate immediately? What will Stephen Harper say in his speech to appease party faithful Friday night at the Conservative convention? And just how did Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau become the victims in all of this?


It's a great case study in crisis communications. And it's entertaining in a bizarre, train wreck kind of way.  


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]]> (Duncan Matheson) Blog Mon, 28 Oct 2013 18:04:00 +0000