Deadwood, mumbo jumbo and message tracking

Even before Tom Osborne decided to make this week much more politically interesting than it already had been, we were having a talk in the newsroom about an increasingly rare quality in local politics: candour.

Earlier in the week, we had the return of former premier Brian Peckford, who had come to St. John's to promote his new memoir, Some Day the Sun Will Shine and Have Not Will Be More.

Like him or lump him, Peckford was known for speaking his mind — blowing his top, even, lest a phrase like "they sold the shop!" escape you — whenever he felt like it. I started my journalism career when Peckford was in office, an era when the premier was known for doing things like deciding to quit talking to the media altogether.

Later in the week, the phrase "mumbo jumbo" instantly turned into local political fodder, when Lake Melville MHA Keith Russell, a Tory rookie, took aim at protesters who have challenged the construction of a hydroelectric megaproject at Muskrat Falls, on the Churchill River just outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"I don't buy into the mumbo jumbo about the trail leading to the Muskrat Falls site as being sacred ground," Russell said in an interview with Labrador Morning. "You can romanticize and sensationalize that particular piece of land all you want, but it is a resource."

Regardless of what you make of Russell's views, you can't say that he's sticking to a bland government message track. (Indeed, as one of my colleagues put it, it was startling to hear a politician say what he actually thinks.)

Hours after we published that story, Tom Osborne called a hastily-arranged news conference. The thought may have been that the former health minister — a 16-year veteran of the house of assembly, and the longest-serving Tory member of the legislature — was retiring from public life.

Not so. Osborne was not retiring, but resigning from the caucus, and his reasons included some eyebrow-raising explanations: apart from not having the confidence in Premier Kathy Dunderdale, he had quite enough of the tight controls on information that Dunderdale's government has put in place.

"I've always had the ability to call the media and voice concerns, and I've done that in Opposition and I've even done it government and have spoke out against my government," Osborne told reporters on Thursday.

"Now there's protocols in place where you have to go through the communications director within the party or the eighth floor and you're provided with key messages and basically told what the message is, what you should say. That's not how I operate."

Oddly enough, the government itself underscored Osborne's point in the following hours with a vengeance (pun partly intended). CBC News contacted each and every member of the Tory caucus for reaction, and a pattern clearly emerged as the responses piled up.

"Tom really hasn't been that engaged in this for the last couple of years," said Education Minister Clyde Jackman — just one politician to use the word "engaged" or a derivative, over and over again.

Speaking with Anthony Germain Friday on the St. John's Morning Show, Osborne confirmed the existence of something that I've long suspected had to be in place.

He said the party keeps a "contact list of loyalist party supporters and caucus" members, who get the message out when something needs not just to be said, but shouted.

If you listen to the open line shows, you probably already know that many of the callers are really players in a long-running bit of political theatre, and that the conspicuous similarity in messages is no accident.

Nor are the stage directions, by the way. "Five minutes after my decision," Osborne told us, "I am absolutely certain that caucus members got a PIN."

Osborne incidentally couldn't entirely disagree with the argument he was not engaged, although one prominent caucus member went a fair bit further.

"He may be popular with his constituents but he has been deadwood," said Joan Burke, the minister of advanced education and skills. [On Twitter that night, Burke was even more blunt. "Good riddance," she tweeted. "Hear! Hear!" responded Paul Lane, a Mount Pearl backbencher well known for applauding as government ministers speak.]

But that other word: "Deadwood." Ouch. I'm pretty sure that word wasn't on the communications experts' suggested messaging ... just as much as I doubt that Burke, who sits on the government front bench, just two seats away from the premier herself, won't be called on to the carpet.

It seems like Keith Russell, meanwhile, won't be so lucky. In an interview for this week's edition of On Point with David Cochrane, Dunderdale didn't just distance herself from Russell's comments, she strongly criticized them.

"A civil society respects other peoples’ cultures and traditions," said Dunderdale, adding she would "absolutely" be speaking with Russell to rein it in.

As certain as it is that Russell went off message, and as likely that Burke, a powerful minister and a former government house leader, will be allowed to smack things down, it's no secret that the current government is very tightly wound up about its messages.

Tom Osborne has not so much revealed but confirmed what seemed to be in place. This is, after all, the government that has frequently prevented experts in the civil service from speaking publicly, directing media calls instead to cabinet ministers (who often need to be found, then briefed on what they need to say).

I have no quarrel with cabinet ministers, of course, speaking about policy issues, or anything else. But until the last few years, provincial civil servants were often available to speak on matters that didn't involve policy: in other words, the facts and details of what they know best, and why they hold the jobs they do.

Message track is far from anything new. Decades ago, consultants started popping up to train politicians and public officials on how to answer reporters' questions, dovetailing with the discovery of the "sound bite." The theory: find a 15-second phrase that sums up what you have to say, make it clippable, and you'll make the news.

The problem is that the news has changed. Yes, we journalists still use sound bites, but we have other tools at our disposal. In addition to running extended recordings on the radio (as we long have done), we post video from news conferences, scrums and the like on our websites.

The spectre of message tracking came to the fore last month when federal cabinet Peter Penashue appeared at an event in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. My colleague Peter Cowan asked him to respond to the fact that Elections Canada found Penashue's 2011 campaign had exceeded its spending limits (no trivial matter, that).

Penashue's response? "We have, as I've said, made a submission to Elections Canada, and we are dealing with any errors that we may have made," and almost exactly the same wording to each of the questions Cowan posed in an interview that was ultimately cut short by a communications official. (You can watch the video of the interview here.)

Here's one thing about message tracking that people who appear before microphones ought to know: they often don't work.

In fact, as we saw in Penashue's case, they backfire. We learned that from Eric Bergman, a noted communications consultant who has been railing for years against the conventional wisdom that message track works well for people and organizations trying to get a point across. Bergman made these points quite eloquently in an edition of On Point earlier this month; you can watch the video of his interview here.

I doubt that advice will sink in quickly. The government has its habits, and while it is touchy about accusations of being secretive (Bill 29, anyone?), it certainly is doing its part to keep the curtain tightly bound around its performance area, and the script lean for its declining number of speaking parts.

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