The decision by Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams to undergo heart surgery in the US has re-ignited the debate over the quality of health care in both countries. But if the way the Premier chose to communicate his decision also raises questions about his media savvy and judgement, it does offer some useful lessons along the way.
One of the canons of effective media relations is to frame the story before it frames you. Unfortunately for Mr. Williams, this story got away the moment his appointed spokesperson, Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale, faced the press without as much as a hint of a substantive answer to work with.
The questions raised by the secrecy around the Premier’s condition and medical choices are legion and were wholly predictable. By putting Ms. Dunderdale in front of reporters with little more than bland reassurances for a script, the Newfoundland Premier raised even more questions and ensured that others–commentators and doctors among them–would answer them for him, resulting in a damaging and embarrassing storyline.
So what lessons can be drawn from this communications fiasco?
The predictability (and legitimacy) of the questions around the Premier’s health should have informed the communications strategy. The focus should have been on quickly and credibly answering these questions and framing them within a storyline that revolved primarily around human considerations (his health and well-being) and government stability, so that the story did not become an assessment of Newfoundland’s (and Canada’s) health care system.
- The Premier should have spoken to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador directly, not assigned the task to an ill-prepared Deputy Premier
- He should have anticipated criticism around his decision to opt for surgery in the US, explained his reasons and reiterated his confidence in his province’s health care system
- Most of all, he should have answered questions about his long term prognosis, reassured his constituents that capable hands would be on the wheel in his absence, and that he would soon be back to carry on the good fight
Getting ahead of the story would have allowed Mr. Williams to frame it in a more favourable and sympathetic light. Had he done that, he might be receiving get-well wishes instead of brickbats today.