Few jobs in Ottawa today are as daunting and thankless as director of communications for the Prime Minister. Incumbents are at the helm of a complex and unwieldy machine that every day has to communicate decisions big and small, often in real time and with the knowledge that a misstep could cause the government to topple.
While it is a natural reflex to want to control information in that environment, the advent of social media and the growing democratization of information make such a strategy difficult to sustain. A better approach may be to open things up. With speculation rampant (in Ottawa and nowhere but Ottawa) over who will be the new PMO director of communications, here’s some free advice to the Chosen One.
Don’t try to do it all yourself. Stick to background; let someone else speak on the record and give them some slack; give ministers more latitude on the record (there are some very capable women and men in cabinet). Staying off the record will give you more space to work up the details and nuances of a story with reporters. It will also help create a relationship of trust with reporters who can spot talking points a mile away. There is real value in an informed media that report on comings and goings in Ottawa with some understanding of context and background–provide it. One of the most successful directors of communications in recent years was Peter Donolo, Jean Chretien’s first D-Comm. Peter rarely spoke on the record, his face was rarely seen in news clips, but his fingerprints were all over countless stories coming out of Ottawa.
2. Build relations with the press gallery
Take the time to really get to know the people that cover your beat. Understand what they do and respect their profession and their deadlines. No, they’re not out to topple the government (at least most aren’t). They have difficult jobs made more difficult by the PMO’s tight grip on information. In your background briefings, tone down the partisan spin; lighten up; explain the back-story. Not everything the government does must be viewed through the prism of an upcoming electoral showdown or a battle between good and evil.
3. Cut ministerial press secretaries some slack
Here’s a good one: Let ministers’ press secretaries do their job. I know, I know, the thing with the tape recorder. But ministerial press secretaries should be your front line in communicating the government’s story–if you can’t trust them, who can you trust? Reporters work to tight deadlines made tighter by the advent of online reporting and social media, they need quick and authoritative answers and information to do their job. Minister’s offices should be empowered and equipped to provide that information. Drop the e-mail answers to e-mailed questions. Encourage press secretaries to speak to reporters and develop their own relations of trust. E-mailed responses should be the exception, not the rule.
This free advice is worth what it cost, but a more nimble, responsive and personal approach to relations with the media might help the government lead and frame its stories instead of reacting to someone else’s take–an otherwise impossible undertaking in a world of news in 140 characters or less.