The Conservative Government, Image Repair & the F-35 Crisis

It’s been a very bad week for the Harper government and it’s likely to get worse.

The release of the Auditor-General’s Spring 2012 Report last Tuesday contained explosive allegations that senior Department of National Defence (DND) officials flouted government rules, misled ministers and Parliament, and concealed cost overruns to ensure the military would receive the F-35 jet fighters it wanted. And it suggested that senior government officials likely played along.

In his assessment of the A-G report, Ottawa University defence policy expert Phillipe Lagassé explains that DND officials intentionally underestimated the cost of the F-35, embellished the possible industrial benefits associated with its acquisition, failed to analyze the risks involved in the deal, and did not provide adequate evidence to support the sole-sourced acquisition of the stealth fighters. The A-G also reported a $10 billion gap between what the government publicly communicated the program cost would be (first $9B and then $14.7B) and what it’s own internal estimates, and working figures, revealed (at least $25B). This was a gap the A-G suggests the government may have whitewashed: “That $25 billion number was something I think that at that time was known to government…It would have been primarily members of the executive.” Or as Lagassé put it more directly: “although DND and the Chief of the Air Staff are identified as the main culprits in this saga, there is no question that Conservative ministers are also to blame.”

One of the factors which led to the May 2011 federal election was the government’s refusal to present a full costing of the F-35 program, among other major spending commitments, in addition to details about the procurement process. When the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page, released his own report in March 2011, pegging the cost of the stealth jet program closer to $30-billion (over 30 years), he came under fire from the ruling party. Conservative MP Laurie Hawn challenged the report’s methodology and dismissed the PBO’s data as “speculative” and “illogical”, an argumentative strategy advanced by other government and party spokespeople at the time. When the issue was raised during the election, the Prime Minister claimed repeatedly that the program would cost roughly $15-billion and even dismissed Pentagon data putting the per-jet cost at more than double official estimates.

The PBO and A-G reports raise serious allegations of mismanagement and pose a significant communications problem for the government. Neither Page nor Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General, have a partisan axe to grind. Both are Conservative appointees, and the latter holds one of the highest profile and most respected public offices in the land. The government cannot dismiss their allegations of fiscal mismanagement and obfuscation as mere politics. The A-G report in particular, and the fallout that we are now beginning to observe, deals a serious blow to the Conservatives’ carefully and (arguably) effectively crafted image of itself as the party of fiscal prudence, competent administration, ethics, and transparency.

The Harper government is now fully engaged in a crisis management exercise that began more than a year ago. William Benoit, a communications professor at Ohio University who specializes in political campaigns and crisis communication, presents a theory of image repair which describes five general strategies an organization (government or corporation) will use to manage the damage to its reputation after it has committed or been accused of wrongdoing. The theory is both analytical and prescriptive–we can use it to make sense of a strategy or as a guideline for developing strategic options. Benoit argues that it’s not reasonable to form a negative impression of an organization unless the organization is believed to be responsible for the offense it is alleged to have committed. Responsibility can take many forms: an organization can be blamed for acts it has directly performed, ordered, or facilitated. Responsibility can also appear as a result of acts of omission, such as the failure to properly prevent something bad from happening, or of looking the other way and permitting that event to occur.

Ultimately, when it comes to responsibility and blame, perceptions are more important than reality. Thus, it may not matter whether the Conservatives actively misled Parliament and Canadians about the cost of the F-35 program, whether they were manipulated by DND officials,  or whether they were complicit in allowing the latter to game the procurement process. What matters is whether Canadians believe they are guilty of wrongdoing. The government’s image and reputation is highly vulnerable and at risk.

Benoit’s theory of image repair allows us to ask and answer: what can a government or corporation say when they have committed wrongdoing or face the perception that they are guilty of wrongdoing? He suggests that in managing a real or potential threat to its image, organizations will deny the existence of the crisis, evade responsibility, seek to reduce its offensiveness, offer corrective action, and/or apologize and seek forgiveness.

The’ response to the F-35 crisis suggests both an awareness of Benoit’s theory and an application of some of its key components:

Denial: there are two possible tactics for denying the existence of a crisis. Simple denial involves the refusal to acknowledge that something bad has happened, whereas blame displacement involves accusing others of having committed the act. The refusal to accept the PBO’s $30-billion price tag and to deny allegations of a multi-billion dollar program cost gap was the first step in the managing the threat to its image of sound fiscal management.  A variation on this strategy of denial would be to suggest that blame for the differences in cost projections should be rest at the feet of senior DND officials, although the government has not pursued this line of argument and defence.

Reduce Offensiveness: facing allegations of wrongdoing, organizations can stress the benefits of their actions, minimize the seriousness of their actions, differentiate their harmful actions from even more serious ones, argue that there are more important considerations to account for, reduce the credibility of their attacker, or offer to compensate or reimburse those who have been harmed. The government has clearly pursued this line of image defense in three key ways:

1. It has repeatedly defended the purchase of F-35 stealth jets as the best equipment for Canada’s military, an argument it’s pursued since 2010 when the cost of the program first surfaced as a major problem;

2. It has dismissed the seriousness of the allegations by describing the $10 billion cost gap as a simple difference in accounting. Key to this tactic has been the mobilization of third party support, from academics to former defence department officials;

3. It has claimed that no jets have yet been purchased and, in contrast to the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the government has not yet misspent public money

Corrective Action: the key characteristic of this image repair strategy is to present a plan that will solve or prevent the recurrence of the problem from happening again in the future. The Conservatives were quick to respond to the A-G report by accepting its conclusions and acknowledging the importance of improving transparency in the procurement process by promising a complete and public review of the program, and setting up a new secretariat inside of the Department of Public Works to oversee the project. More serious corrective actions might involve changes in personnel, including demoting the Minister or senior DND officials. However these steps would indicate that the government acknowledges the seriousness of the offense it is alleged to have committed and an admission of culpability or guilt. Neither of those options appears tenable at the moment; yet, as more information comes to light, including a clearer sense of how Canadians are responding to the crisis, this could change.

The Harper government has 3 years remaining in its majority mandate so isn’t vulnerable to an imminent collapse. Nevertheless, the long term implications for the Conservative image and brand are significant. The government has spent several years framing itself as trustworthy, competent fiscal managers who exercise sound governance and are committed to ethics. The allegations contained in the A-G report (and suggested in the PBO report before it) strike at the heart of that image and suggest a serious failure in regulation, oversight and transparency. Images, brands, and reputations are only ever virtual, which is why the Conservatives have also acquired a reputation (with equal amount of resonance) for secrecy, information control and evasive spin doctoring. Language and rhetoric, both in terms of how images are attacked and how they are managed, once they’ve been damaged, are crucial, particularly in times of crisis. The full implications of the F-35 scandal remain unclear, and will continue to take shape in the coming days and weeks as all sides engage in a battle over its framing. The Conservatives are likely to keep the debate focused on the issue of total cost, where they can continue to emphasize differences in budgeting formulae; the opposition are likely to remain focused on questions about the procurement process, and why the government appears to have been cagey with Canadians over the numbers it shared publicly against those it used privately. However the debate unfolds, there should be no question that the government is on the ropes, that it has taken a significant reputation hit, and is bringing the full force of its crisis communications capacity to the situation.

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Filed under Canadian Politics, Crisis Communication, Political Communication, Politics, Public Relations

Twitter in the Tower

My university’s PR department recently invited me to talk about the benefits and limitations of using Twitter in support of research and teaching. As a communications professor (trained as a sociologist), I spend a lot of time playing with digital media, experimenting with and thinking critically about how technology affects intellectual labour, the delivery of education, and social relations among faculty, administrative staff and students.

Universities are confronting the effects of social media, as are medicinepublic healthlawgovernmentpolicing and other major societal institutions. Incidentally, these institutions were also forced to confront and adapt to the introduction of myriad other kinds of technology, from presentation software like PowerPoint to the Internet, video recording, the microphone, the fax and photocopier, television, the telephone and…well you get the picture. One recent experimental study concluded that if used effectively and in support of sound pedagogy, Twitter has potential for enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. Another study  provides a compelling argument which challenges the transformative potential of social media in the classroom. Funding agencies, such as Canada’s Tri-Council (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC), are more assertively encouraging grant recipients to promote ‘uptake’ of their research to a variety of end users (e.g. policy makers, community organizations, clients and consumers of social services, etc.), and have developed knowledge mobilization strategies to advance this agenda. Although tweeting about one’s research is not in itself a strategy for dissemination, if used effectively it can support a range of knowledge mobilization efforts, such as producing documentary filmsbrochurestheatre, and other media that advance the core findings of funded scholarship.

In my presentation I covered how I use Twitter in five different ways, and referenced a recent online conversation I had with other professors who use Twitter in their work (here’s the Storify version of that conversation).

Research: Twitter is both an object of analysis and the medium through which I do some of my research. Some of this work examines how social media is altering the ways institutions and actors within the arenas of politics, business, and civil society communicate. I’ve explored how Twitter and Facebook have affected local and national political campaigns, been used to promote NGO and nonprofit causes, as well as how corporations use digital media as a tool for managing crises and restoring reputational damage. I am also increasingly conducting “live research”, which involves monitoring social media for “hot” events in several areas of substantive interest (e.g. public health, environment, and homelessness). This blog post about the 2011 Ottawa endoscopy infection scare (which I’m presently developing into a journal article) was written over the course of several days after news of what occurred was first live-tweeted at an Ottawa Public Health news conference.

Building Profile: I described in my presentation how I use Twitter to supplement traditional knowledge dissemination and profile-building activities, such as writing for peer-review and attending scholarly conferences. In practice, this involves linking peer-reviewed research (my own or work by others) through my Twitter feed if the research addresses a contemporary issue or event that may be generating or attracting policy or media attention (see examples here and here). I will admit to having felt uncomfortable about “flogging” my own work in this way. Eventually I came to realize that I write not just for myself but in order to be read, not only by other academics but a variety of audiences: policymakers, journalists, community organizations, activists and people in business.

Professional Networking: if funded, my next project will apply ethnography to examine the occupational rhetoric and culture of public relations in an agency setting. Although I worked for a brief time in a PR firm years ago, my knowledge of the cultural milieu of PR agency life remains essentially impressionistic. Importantly, no serious qualitative research into PR agency life has ever been done before. Twitter has been a valuable tool for helping me to network and build rapport with public relations educators and practitioners, both of whom spend a lot of time using social media in their work.

Twitter has also been instrumental in helping me to meet and learn from other researchers in my field and other disciplines. In addition to using Twitter to search for and share research, I also use, a social network for academics, to assist with literature reviews and to ask questions of other scholars who post their work (published and unpublished) on their profile pages.

Teaching: I described how Twitter allows me to share links to news reports, clips from films and other pop cultural artefacts, as well as current or emergent research about course-relevant themes and topics. Sometimes this has taken the form of what I call a “trailer tweet” that provides a snapshot to help focus a broader discussion. To prime my second year communication studies class for a lecture about the Frankfurt School and its critique of the culture industries I tweeted (during the early days of the Occupy Movement in the fall of 2011) an interview with Theodor Adorno in which he talks about the relationship between popular music and protest.

I have also used Twitter to pose trivia questions that relate to course material and to solicit feedback from students following lectures or presentations. All of this activity is used to supplement other efforts of communicating with students in person, on the course website, and in the classroom. It’s unclear whether this activity has made a lick of difference in terms of enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. At this point I would conclude that while it may be helping to keep students aware of the course between classes, it hasn’t helped foster intellectual curiosity, analytical thinking, or debate. Yet I remain interested enough to continue experimenting and evaluating, and learning from others who are doing the same.

Personal: I also talked about my use of Twitter for things that have nothing to do with my work. Twitter is one media platform among several others I use to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and to share aspects of my personal life that are not directly related to my work: the funny things my kids say, promoting social causes I care about, and my love of music, sport (especially cycling and running), and even television (although, technically, as a communications professor I only watch and talk about Mad Men for the science). It’s also a great space for participating in crowd-sourced satire.

Some might dismiss this activity as excessively mundane, but so what? University professors log on, goof off, and look things up too. My friend Richard Smith, who is the Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University, writes that while tweeting about silly things “might not be the most edifying use of a communication medium…we can all afford a bit of drivel in our lives. At the very least, it shows others that we are human, too.”

Finally, I concluded by summarizing what I see as some of the main benefits and potential drawbacks of the time I spend playing around and working in the digital mediascape. While it has certainly contributed to and enhanced my research, profile building, networking and teaching, it is also a demanding activity that takes time away from other things I could be doing, like preparing for a class, finally finishing that journal article or enjoying an extra 30 minutes of sleep. There are also important ethical questions relating to privacy, power, and identity, among other issues, that I can’t possibly address here but which I think about often. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that social media is truly as ‘transformative’ as digital media enthusiasts would tend to argue . Finally, I also reflect a lot on the self-promotional nature of this activity and of the dilemmas this raises about the commercialization of academic work.

If you’re a university or college professor who embraces, is curious about, or refuses to use Twitter in your research, networking, or teaching, I’d love to hear from you. I’m also keen to hear from students about their experiences using social media in the classroom. And if you just want to tweet me what you thought of this week’s episode of Portlandia that would be cool too. You can find me on Twitter @josh_greenberg.


Filed under Higher Education, Social Media, Technology

Fake news, questionable ethics and bad publicity

The American propagandist and “father of spin” Edward Bernays famously argued that the propaganda efforts which had been so important to the success of the U.S. wartime effort could be equally applied during times of peace and stable government.

If you follow me on Twitter or stay plugged into the day’s online news feeds, you may already be familiar with the case of Citizenship & Immigration Canada’s fake oath-taking event. If not, CIC staffers, under pressure from the Minister’s office and in cahoots with producers at the Conservative-friendly Sun TV News, orchestrated a make-believe citizenship ceremony for “new Canadians”. The problem is that the majority of the so-called new citizens who attended the event to take their oaths were actually government bureaucrats.

There are two immediately striking observations to be made here: the first is to question the effort and expense paid by a government department (on the taxpayer’s dime, no less) to organize a media event that was more focused on the production of an image–no matter the substance–than the celebration of real citizenship. That they would do so for a news network that draws very meagre ratings makes it all the more puzzling.

More importantly, how in the world could the CIC’s senior communications staff (and SunTV producers, for that matter) not have known that this would blow back, making them look either stupid or manipulative? The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which oversees emergency response in the United States, did almost the exact same thing several years ago during the California wild fires and got called out for its efforts in the national media. Either the CIC’s communication strategists didn’t know about the FEMA case or they chose to ignore it. Beyond the unethical nature of the behaviour, neither ignorance or bliss is an acceptable defense when you’re paid to act like a professional.

The Conservative government already has a reputation for relentless information management. Events like the fake oath-swearing ceremony irritate and agitate the national media, with whom the Tories already have strained relations, not to mention the Twitterati who kept the event trending for most of today. More importantly, events like this one reinforce in the minds of citizens–especially non-supporters–that this is a government for whom spin control has become the norm in communicative practice. While it’s unlikely to have any kind of long-term effects on its own, this event now joins others (and here) in the growing case file of Tory propaganda.


Filed under Political Communication, Public Relations

The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology: Digital Democracy and the Information State

Two recent stories about the Conservative government’s approach to digital media are worthy of mention and reflection.

Story 1: The federal government wants to be your Facebook friend and connect with you on Twitter. As Treasury Board president and power Tweeter Tony Clement argues, “To use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens, to communicate rapidly and directly with our employees and the Canadian public is a challenge, but it is big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government.”

Canadians are spending more of their time online: here we swap recipes, upload pictures, plan parties, gossip, and, yes, even talk about politics and policy. The idea of the federal government connecting in the social mediascape with Canadians seems both legitimate and progressive because it potentially promotes greater transparency and accountability, and invites more Canadians to talk back to their government. As open government advocates argue, there’s no question social technologies can be used in democratically progressive ways, and may help enhance the quality of civic discourse and mitigate the governance gap between politicians and citizens.

Story 2: In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities. Despite protest from ordinary Canadians and advocacy groups, lawyers, provincial privacy watchdogs, as well as the federal government’s own appointed privacy and surveillance advocate, Jennifer Stoddart, the Conservatives refuse to even talk about (let alone consider) measures or modifications that would smooth out the most egregious aspects of the legislation.

[On the Conservative’s new copyright legislation (Bill C-11), see my colleague Dwayne Winseck’s recent column in the Globe & Mail. It raises numerous critical observations which point to interesting connections between these areas of legislation and their implications for digital media, surveillance and privacy.]

These stories are illuminating in their own right but far more interesting when taken together because they reveal the Janus-faced nature of digital media as well as government policy as it relates to new technology. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With two faces looking in opposite directions, he was at once peering into the past while gazing to the future.

So much public discourse about digital technology reflects the belief–widely shared by academics, journalists, open government advocates, and politicians like Minister Clement (at least publicly)–that given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable and will flourish. It’s hard not to be taken in by the seductive nature of this claim; indeed there is a case to be made for the relationship between access, information flow and democratization.

At the same time, we can’t consider the democratic potential of digital media without addressing questions of governance and regulation. If we assume that the Internet will only function in the service of democracy, we not only risk operating with what Evgeny Morozov calls a “voluntary intellectual handicap”, we also run the risk undermining our own attempts to create a more robust polity and democracy.

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Filed under Politics, Social Media, Surveillance, Technology

Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Emergency Communication, Everyday Life, Health Issues, Health Promotion, Public Health, Public Relations, Risk, Social Media

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma

If a fight breaks out, watch the crowd…Private conflicts are taken into the public arena precisely because someone wants to make certain that the power ratio among the private interests shall not prevail.

— E.E. Schattschneider

In The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider makes two key points about contentious politics: first, that the salience of an issue or problem has less to do with its objective properties than with a political process; and second, that individuals who stand on the sidelines of conflicts—the bystanders—play an important role, through their action or inaction, in determining its shape and outcomes.

Schattschneider’s insights about the importance of conflict expansion are valuable and help inform our understanding about the characteristics and mobilization dilemmas of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., as well as Canada where it has expanded to numerous cities. Not only can bystanders who become engaged in political conflicts increase or reduce the likelihood of ameliorative action; supporters and participants can also become disengaged if they aren’t sufficiently motivated.

This mobilization dilemma is, at its root, a problem of communication and is one the Occupy movement now faces both as it matures and develops a sense of its own identity, but also as it begins to fade from news headlines, as media coverage focuses more on themes of inconvenience and violence and less on the protest issues itself, and as the reality of an approaching winter challenges the protesters’ resilience. Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, which set the Occupy movement into motion, puts it this way: “The original magic of some of those general assemblies is wearing a little thin in some — though not all — places. And winter is coming. People are wondering whether they want to hang around for three hours talking about protocol.” If the Occupy protesters intend to make inroads toward achieving a restructuring of political and economic life, it will need to confront this mobilization dilemma head on. This is particularly important in Canada where the levels of movement participation is lower overall.

Structural Strain and the “Problem Load” of Social Issues

There are many reasons people become involved in social movements. A traditional view sees social movements as arising as an adaptive response to problems of political, economic or moral order: the material conditions in a society may become so problematic and dysfunctional that people feel compelled to organize and commit energy, time, emotions, money, and other resources to voicing their discontent and demanding that something be done.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reports that since the late 1970s the income share of Canada’s wealthiest 1% has doubled, while the share of income for the bottom 80% of Canadian families with children is smaller today than a generation ago. Consumer debt continues to rise in Canada placing individual and family security at risk; and levels of child poverty (particularly among Aboriginal children) remains intolerably high. For the Occupy movement, these and related material indicators are evidence of a deeply rooted problem of structural inequality, caused, in their view, by a general adherence across all levels of government to an ideology and policy framework associated with neo-liberalism.

Andrew Coyne, CBC commentator and national editor of Maclean’s magazine, takes issue with these claims. He notes how the collapse of the housing market in the U.S., which left millions with homes worth less than their mortgages, the actions of a morally questionable financial sector, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and declining or stagnant levels of social mobility and income growth, simply don’t reflect the Canadian experience. In contrast, Coyne argues, Canadians have not witnessed an “epidemic of mortgage failures,” unemployment has been falling, not rising, and official measures of poverty show signs of encouragement. He accuses Canada’s Occupy movement of engaging in a “phony class war” that, in his words, has more to do with “envy” than structural strain.

Are the material conditions sufficient in themselves to motivate or sustain collective action? For Canadians, the answer depends in part on whether you believe the CCPA or Coyne’s argument. But I want to argue here that this may be the wrong question to ask. Starting with Schattschneider, a whole tradition of research in political communication has shown that the “objective problem load” of any given issue (global warming, homelessness, the risk of infectious disease, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is insufficient in itself for explaining why some problems achieve widespread recognition when others do not, or why governments respond to some issues but ignore others. What matters, this research argues, is the existence of a plausible definition of a problem, the development of a clear and distinctive policy image, and the ability to mobilize support for an agenda of change.

Framing and Mobilization

To be successful, social movements have to package or frame their grievances in ways that resonate with the values, identities and ideological interests of all kinds of bystanders: individuals, groups with shared concerns, journalists, academics and other observers. What sociologists call “framing contests” are essentially battles between competing interests over how to establish and anchor meaning about complex or uncertain problems or events—often, framing battles occur between social movements and their opponents in the corporate sector. The case of the global anti-sweatshop movement and its campaign against Nike is a good example. But framing battles also occur between activist groups who occupy competing positions within a social movement. Robert Benford’s study of the nuclear disarmament movement illustrates how movements can experience schismatic ideological struggles over the identification of a problem and the promotion of best solutions.

In either case, the objective in framing contests is to ensure that your group’s definition of the situation not only prevails in terms of influencing how others talk; it’s to also ensure that your frame prevails to the extent that others will begin to organize their activities and/or carry out their activities and work in ways that are congruent with that frame (this is a double-process Martaan Hajer refers to as discourse structuration and discourse institutionalization).

Social scientists normally talk about framing in relation to how media cover issues and events, how activists attempt to influence the media, policy and public agendas, and of the interactions between them. Journalists frame our understanding of social and political life by emphasizing the importance of certain events, of privileging the voices of some sources and downplaying the perspectives of others, and of spotlighting certain causes and consequences for why something has become worthy of attention. Social activists attempt to influence media coverage, and thus public opinion, by framing the problem in ways that establish clear definitions about what’s wrong, who’s to blame and what should be done. There’s no guarantee, of course, that media or activist frames will ever determine how readers, listeners or viewers comprehend or understand the issue.

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma

Through a commitment to deliberative discourse, the Occupy movement has established the importance of dialogue and consensus-based decision-making. It is not an established movement with clear roots or a clear identity; rather, it emerged more spontaneously out of a shared sense of grievance and frustration about the undue and dangerous influence of corporate interests over politics and policymaking. The movement is best described as emergent—every day it assumes a new form and expresses new grievances and claims. The general refusal of movement participants to identify (or identify with) clear leaders or even express focused demands is refreshing when considered against the highly professionalized and packaged presence of many contemporary activist groups.

Furthermore, this unclear sense of what the movement is and what it wants to see done has been a source of frustration for establishment media, which operates according to a set of normative practices in which stories contain clear beginnings, middles and ends, and where movement objectives and goals are often attached to charismatic figures. A U.S. activist quoted in the New York Times explains how “demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.” The Occupy movement’s commitment to a slow and intentionally deliberative process of decision-making in each of its local contexts is designed to expand movement participation by bringing disparate interests and groups into the fold. This form of movement activism speaks not just to the diffused interests and priorities of its multiple participants but also to the ways in which they are stitched together (increasingly) by fragmented and decentralized social networks.

The Occupy movement’s commitment to deliberation and general unwillingness or inability to express a core set of demands has consequences, however. The movement may have an asymmetrical and ambivalent relationship with establishment media, but it’s a relationship it must continue to nurture because the volume and tone of news attention remains fundamental to perceptions of movement success. We may have moved into a new period of media-movement relations in which social platforms like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook provide new opportunities for advocates and activists to build and maintain communities of support and to bypass the traditional media filter. But activists ignore the establishment media, with its broader reach and impact not only on traditional policymaking, but also on the very substance of social media chatter, at their peril.

As the Occupy movement develops, activists will face the challenge of refreshing their grievances and messages: not only to show that they remain relevant and worthy of continuing media attention, but that they can also attract new participants and sustain membership and commitment over the long term. Commitment fatigue is a problem all movements face—in the case of the Occupy movement, this fatigue may settle in when supporters fail to see evidence of potential or actual progress, and either drop out of the movement altogether or move on to other issues and campaigns. This will be a true test of its resilience in a society that is so thoroughly saturated by competing issues and problems, dilemmas and distractions.

The State of Public Opinion: What Next for the Occupy Movement?

In the U.S., a convincing majority of Americans are angry and resentful toward Wall Street. A TIME/Abt SRBI poll of “likely voters” conducted on October 9 and 10 showed:

  • 54% of respondents have a positive view of the protest movement, well above the 23% who view the Occupy movement negatively
  • 80% of respondents agree that wealth disparity in the U.S. is too large while 68% agree that the rich should pay more taxes
  • 56% of all respondents predict the Occupy movement will have little impact on public policy

This should be a sign of good news for the movement. There’s lots of public anger about the central “problem” established by the movement (corporate greed, structural inequality, etc.) and a majority of respondents view the movement favourably.

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted on October 14-16 shows similar levels of public outrage and condemnation with Wall Street.

  • 80% of respondents agree that bankers are greedy
  • 77% say bankers are overpaid
  • Roughly 60% agree they’re dishonest

Yet, despite these high levels of distrust, support for the Occupy movement appears to be waning, or at the very least levelling off. Where 54% of TIME poll respondents held favourable views of the movement, only 32% of respondents to the CNN poll a week later said the same. And negative views were 6 points higher, from 23% to 29%. Although these are different polls conducted by different organizations, the significant change in favourability figures offer a snapshot of possible shifts in public opinion.

There have not been similar polls conducted in Canada to identify the existence of any trends. However, a just released Abacus survey (conducted between October 19 and 21) offers valuable insight into the current state of Canadian public opinion its implications for the Occupy movement here.

The data are rich and I draw attention to just a few national highlights:

  • 81% agree that “large corporations and the rich have too much influence on public policy and government in Canada” and the same number agree that the “gap between the rich and poor in Canada has grown too large”
  • 64% agree with the statement that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy, compared to only 14% who disagree
  • 41% of respondents hold a positive view of the Occupy protests, while 22% view the movement negatively

Perhaps the most significant, if disheartening, finding:

  • Despite strong support for the Occupy movement’s raison d’être, 60% believe the movement will have no impact on Canadian politics, while only 18% believe it will spur positive political change

The Abacus data do not tell us why so many Canadians (like Americans) express support for the  Occupy protests yet conclude they are unlikely to produce meaningful results. Some critics will argue that media mistreatment of the Occupy movement may be to blame, citing patterns of misrepresentation and the maligning of movement goals. They point to high profile examples where establishment media have mocked or otherwise dismissed the arguments and objectives of the movement as the reasons for why more people might not be getting involved, or why respondents are likely to dismiss the movement’s efficacy (meanwhile, in the U.S., in a campaign to delegitimize the protests, conservative critics are taking aim at establishment journalists—questioning their objectivity and branding them “professional cheerleaders). Others will conclude that this general sense of ambivalence about the potential of the movement to achieve success reflects a wider-held sense of political apathy and malaise.

The [Occupy] movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences.

George Lakoff

Regardless of the cause, these numbers should be a source of concern for the Occupy movement and its supporters. If there is to be a more fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, and meaningful efforts by governments everywhere to tackle structural inequality (in its multiple forms), this is going to require tangible changes to public policy. Yet, such changes do not happen on their own, on the basis of hopeful thinking, in light of claims to a superior moral vision, or simply because problems are real and can be measured objectively. Such change will require a commitment to translating widely shared grievances that something is fundamentally wrong into concrete demands and practical solutions that can be framed in ways that appeal not only to a committed core of movement adherents (who need to remain energized and motivated), but to policymakers who are in a position to act, and, crucially, to those individuals and groups who may yet become mobilized into action.


Filed under Activism, Occupy Canada, Occupy Wall Street, Politics, Public Relations, Social Movements

Political Image and the Canadian English-Language Debate

Although we are now fully into the third week of the federal election campaign, a majority of Canadians will not have begun to take full notice until last night’s English-language leaders’ debate. Sparring on a set that looked like a throwback to a 1970s game show, the leaders of Canada’s three federalist parties, plus separatist leader Gilles Duceppe, exchanged barbs on a range of issues: crime control, multiculturalism, the economy and tax cuts, health care and governance.

Following the debate, each party’s war room went into full spin mode in an effort to declare their leader the winner and to set the post-debate news agenda; news networks provided nonstop analysis and reporting; and the social mediascape was abuzz, with voters, pundits and journalists offering up their favourite quotes, commentary and predictions about the next day’s headlines.

Despite the range of issues which animated the event, voters who tuned in looking for a thoughtful debate about policy will have come away disappointed. Although each party’s general position on the aforementioned issues were on display, these were mostly reduced to well-rehearsed sound-bytes designed to influence the post-debate news cycle. What’s more, several major issues were virtually ignored: climate change, telecommunications reform and Canada’s digital strategy, the aging workforce, and crumbling public infrastructure, to name just a few.

In fairness to the leaders, however, televised debates are really less about policy than performance: it’s no wonder, then, that in the aftermath of the event the news media discussion has focused more on assessing the leaders’ image than the substance of their argument or vision for Canada. Cynics and critics lament the attention paid by parties, the media, pollsters, the punditocracy, and even voters to image politics: a politician’s charm, clothing, communication skills and charisma, high-minded observers argue, should not count for more than the solutions he or she has for dealing with the wicked policy problems of our time.

In my co-edited book, Communication in Question, public relations consultant Bernie Gauthier argues that normative criticisms like this betray an understanding of image and the role it plays in political campaigns. Bernie draws theoretically from the work of the political scientist Samuel Popkin, whose book, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, examines the cognitive shortcuts citizens take in order to arrive at reasoned choices. Popkin argues that rather than trying to learn something specific about a candidate or party’s policy position, voters exercise “low information rationality” in order to make assessments about competence on the basis of characteristics we might otherwise dismiss as mere packaging: how they handle pressure, respond to attack and appeal to sentiment.

With the advent of television, political speech has shifted from the use of formal techniques to a more conversational mode of address that’s designed for the intimacy of the living room. With this in mind, the prime minister’s stylistic performance was strong and from my perspective he appeared to be the best coached leader for the event. Knowing he’d face three skilled debaters looking to knock him off balance, Angry Steve didn’t come out to play — instead, we saw a PM who remained calm and composed, who never got rattled, never broke a sweat and whose tone of voice remained even throughout the debate. Harper knew precisely where his camera was located and effectively spoke to it, and thus directly to Canadians watching at home. Nothing the prime minister said will have swayed left leaning voters to give him their support. But he also did not commit the mistakes of classic debate losers that would see major bleeding to other parties. Notwithstanding Harper’s record in government and his campaign gaffes and problems, in the debate he was neither contentious or histrionic.

Most of the media attention in the build-up to the debate (and since) focused on how the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, would fare in his first televised leadership contest. Overall, he did reasonably well. Although he stumbled on a few occasions, he clearly found his stride when addressing governance and international issues. In response to Mr. Harper’s appeal for a majority mandate, Ignatieff responded: “you don’t deserve the trust of the Canadian people because you don’t trust the Canadian people.” When Mr. Harper accused the opposition of forming a coalition to advance its motion of finding the government in contempt of Parliament, Mr. Ignatieff replied: “You keep talking about Parliament as if it’s this little debating society that’s a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It’s not. It’s the Parliament of the people of Canada, and they found you in contempt.” Mr. Ignatieff portrayed himself to the be the most cerebral and theoretical of the leaders. This image will appeal to voters who believe that parliamentary traditions demand respect, who believe in the importance of a strong international reputation, and who think that intellectualism is a strength and not a liability of political leadership.

Mr. Ignatieff also expressed himself more clearly than the other leaders in his body language. In Gauthier’s essay, he reflects on the pioneering work of Ray Birdwhistell, whose classic book Kinesics and Context reminds us that it is more than just words that express meaning and influence. Our body movements (hand gestures, facial expressions) are also powerful communicators. On several occasions during the debate Mr. Ignatieff pointed his finger at Mr. Harper and could be seen staring deeply in his direction, hand fixed firmly on his hip (a gesture Aaron Wherry suggests that would have driven image consultants to “scream in unison at their television screens”). Mr. Ignatieff’s gestures will have produced competing images that will resonate with different voters: those who like him and mistrust the PM will see an assertive and strong leader and a genuine alternative. Those who already dislike him or have been convinced by the Conservative attack ads that Mr. Ignatieff is arrogant and aloof may conclude that the tone of his body movements convey aggression and impatience.

In many ways the NDP leader, Jack Layton, had the most difficult role of the evening. Faced with having to battle an established narrative that there are really only two options in the election (a red door or blue door), the NDP’s biggest challenge was to make itself appear relevant. And for this reason, it was necessary that Mr. Layton perform in such a way that would help him cut above the noise of the Conservative front-runner and his Liberal challenger. Mr. Layton’s physical position in the debate between his main federalist challengers was a benefit and reminds us of the famous aphorism that “space communicates”. It allowed him to alternate his body position in order to address each of his federalist opponents in turn on a similar point. To Mr. Ignatieff he asked, “Why have you been Mr. Harper’s best friend?” before turning toward Mr. Harper to state, “if it hadn’t been for him supporting you all this time, I’d have to be lending you my crutch so your government could’ve stayed in power.”

Mr. Layton also produced some of the evening’s most memorable lines, the most effective of which was was surely the one directed at Mr. Ignatieff’s voting record. In challenging Ignatieff’s claim that only a Liberal government can be an alternative to the Conservatives, he quipped: “Most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion. … You missed 70 per cent of the votes [in the House of Commons].” That this zinger wasn’t factually correct (Mr. Ignatieff really missed between 55-60 per cent of parliamentary votes) was really beside the point. Mr. Layton can only be seen to have succeeded in his goal of portraying his party’s relevance in the campaign. Pundits or observers who write off the NDP as irrelevant in this campaign should give their heads a shake. Whether Layton’s success in the debate translates into voter support or seats, however, is a different matter.

The big question people are asking today is “who won”? In many ways this is the wrong question to ask because it presumes the leaders were competing for the same audience. With his polling numbers sliding dramatically in the day preceding the debate, Mr. Harper had to appeal to nervous voters on the right and centre-right of the political spectrum to reassure them of his trustworthiness. While I don’t think his performance will have netted the Conservatives new votes, he did a reasonably good job of maintaining the support he already has.

Mr. Ignatieff had to court the same centre-right voters (who are also in play for the Liberals), as well as those who swing between the Grits and NDP, by reminding both of the Conservative contempt for Parliament and the allegations of scandal and corruption. On this score he did well. But he also had to show himself to be a credible alternative to Mr. Harper. And in this regard he deserves good marks. The Conservatives attempt to paint a picture of the Liberal leader as out of touch and aloof will have failed to register last night. Ironically, the strategy of vilifying the Liberal leader may benefit Mr. Ignatieff more than Mr. Harper in the end.

Mr. Layton, finally, had to appeal to his base of left wing support and to centre-left voters who have never quite warmed to Mr. Ignatieff. Ultimately, Layton’s main objective was to be a factor in the post-debate news cycle. Based on several memorable one-liners and of the media images showing him between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, he succeeded.

At the end of the day, we’re left with a situation where not much will have changed. Nobody wins and nobody loses. In some respects, with the exception of a single outlier, the post-debate polls shows a general tightening trend with some very interesting regional dynamics, including Quebec where the NDP appears to have some decent upward movement. Thus while tonight’s French-language debate won’t garner the same audience share as last night’s event, it is still very much a key chapter in the story of this election. And it’s a story that’s far from over.


Filed under Politics