Sometimes really smart people say really dumb things. We got a perfect example yesterday courtesy of Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra.
Appearing before the Commons Transport Committee to explain the corporation’s decision to eliminate home delivery, the head of Canada Post made a comment about seniors that showcased about the same tonal acuity as Marie-Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”.
Asked to explain how the cancellation of home mail delivery would affect seniors, Chopra replied that seniors had told the corporation that they wanted more fresh air and exercise in their lives. In other words, opined the Canada Post supremo, this was good news.
Any reporter covering the committee who had been wondering what the story from the daylong proceedings would be, had their answer when Chopra finished suggesting that seniors welcomed the end of home delivery because of the healthier lifestyle choices that would follow in its wake.
In addition to painting the corporation as woefully out of touch, Chopra’s unfortunate framing had the effect of burying Canada Post’s overall narrative and the business rationale for its decision at the bottom of the story.
But what became an embarrassing soundbite and headline for Canada Post and Chopra, could easily have been avoided–and that’s the takeaway–with a little preparation and a little humility.
It’s likely that having an emergency Transport committee hearing called after the House had risen caught the corporation a little flat-footed and contributed to a less-than-stellar public relations effort. But questions about the impact of the elimination of home delivery on seniors and people with disabilities were totally predictable and the Corporation’s public affairs staff should have prepared an appropriate Qs & As strategy as part of the CEO’s briefing.
There’s no doubt that “how will seniors get their mail”, is a tough question for a PR team to nail, particularly when you’re on the hot seat and your organization has yet to work out a credible answer. But the better part of valour truly is discretion, and in this case it should have meant avoiding disingenuous answers.
In prepping Mr. Chopra for his committee appearance, the Canada Post PR team should have done two things. First, they should have tried to put some bedrock under their answers by leveraging the long transition period before home delivery is abolished as the foundation for their messaging. Second, they should have advised their CEO that his demeanour had to balance decisiveness and humility; that he would have to acknowledge that Canada Post had no ready-made answer to that particular question, and tell the Committee that the lengthy transition would allow for the fine-tuning of the corporate plan, and that he was committed to finding a solution.
Such an answer might not have made opposition politicians (or the boss) happy, but sometimes when you’re in corporate communications and are called in at the last minute to put a golden sheen on whatever the C-suite has hatched, you just need to buy some time for yourself and for the organization. In those circumstances, it’s less about being a hero and more about surviving to fight another day.
Had the Canada Post brass adopted that approach to their committee appearance yesterday, Mr. Chopra might not be seen today as the man with all the answers, but neither would he be the poster boy for monopolistic arrogance.