How to fix Ed’s communications problems
In case you missed it, a week and a half ago I wrote about the latest of Ed Stelmach’s communication’s gaffes. I almost felt a little sad in writing the post because social media was sort of Premier Ed’s last frontier of communication tools. He had tried speeches, scrums, Question Period, interviews, television specials – and I’m sure there was a long suffering carrier pigeon or two involved – all to very little success. So he turned his attention to the latest trend: social media. His last great hope. And I lambasted him for his hollow effort that missed the mark almost entirely. It felt like I was kicking a puppy. The man and his team are trying their best, but failure to effectively communicate their message has met them regardless of what medium they’ve tried.
And while I am 100% confident this is entirely coincidence, the day after I wrote my condemnation of their last ditch chance, the Premier’s director of communications decided enough was enough and it was time for him to step aside.
I can’t really blame him. Paul Stanway is a long-time journalist who, I imagine, understands two things really well: the newspaper business and the way public relations have been conducted for the past forty or fifty years. Sadly, neither of those two things are very relevant anymore. Newspapers are dying and public relations is a completely different game than it used to be. (Case in point, my entire AskEd argument.)
But talk is cheap. So I figured, why not give some free advice to Stanway’s replacement?
Lord knows they’re not going to ask me to fill the job, so I might as well give away the farm here for free. Besides, I’m just some punk anyway, right? Well, I suppose it’s true that my actual real world job is marketing and communications and I am a member of IABC, which does make me more qualified on paper than Stanway or Tom Olsen were before they started with the Premier’s office. But let’s put that aside. Despite the fact the Alberta PC party is the only party I’ve ever joined, I haven’t held continuous Tory membership for the last thirty years so I’m confident the job is NOT coming my way.
None-the-less, Mr. Premier, I want Alberta to be as great as possible. Right now you are our leader and I would be remiss if I didn’t don’t everything to help you succeed. (I’m post-partisan and don’t care who leads Alberta so long as they lead it with wisdom and to somewhere great.) I don’t profess to have all the answers or to be better than anyone else, but if I was your director of communications, here’s what I would do to get things back on track and restore the premiership to its former – and rightful – place of respect.
1. Ditch the suit – You’re a farmer for crying out loud. Surely you don’t feel comfortable in that tie and matching jacket/pant combo. I’m guessing you don’t because you don’t look comfortable. (And that’s kind of the problem.) We need to get back to what you know best – what you feel most confident in. We need to get your wife dressing you again; as she no doubt has for the last however many decades of your political career. Put some jeans on. Sure you can still wear a nice button-down shirt and sport coat but let’s go shopping for some new boots!
No doubt there will be a time when you will have to wear a suit. People will understand that. But guess what? The guys working in the downtown Calgary skyscrapers only wear suits when they meet with you because you’re wearing a suit. You are the trendsetter in this situation. I know that’s crazy, but it’s true. Besides, many of them don’t wear suits on regular days anyway. Most of them don’t like them either.
2. Start talking with people – I know you’ll protest “but I do talk to the people!”, but please hear me out. I know YOU know the difference between talking with people and talk to people. But a public relations person who can differentiate is a rarity. You’re staff has been having you do the latter, when what you need to do – nay, what you’re best at doing – is talking with people. Communications is a two way street. It’s time to open you up to the public more and start emphasizing the two way part.
Another benefit this creates? It allows you to stop the double-speak. People ask questions because they want answers. Reporters ask questions because they need info to fill pages or minutes of video. You can get away with dodgey answers with reporters if you run them in circles enough. The public on the other hand get seriously pissed if you do that. Personally, I think this is a much better benchmark to hold yourself against; because having the public leave a conversation satisfied means you’ve connected. Having the media leaving satisfied means you’ve either said something dumb they can nail you on, you’ve just spent a couple million dollars, or you’ve simply filled up a tape recorder. Which would you rather accomplish as leader of all Albertans? I vote for connection.
3. Don’t put your head in the mouth of a hungry lion – It may hurt to hear, but it goes like this: you are terrible in front of a camera. Sorry, but you come across as a babbling fool who is out of his depth every time he’s asked a question that requires an answer. (And yes, that would be every question.) So why keep go in front of cameras like that? You’re just punishing yourself. I know this might be hard to hear, but it’s not the media’s fault their method of operating is so different than yours. So why keep playing their game? I hear from people all the time that you are GREAT to have a conversation with. I’ve had more than one person tell me you are a completely different man in person than how you come across on television. So let’s get you out of that Legislature office and start meeting people face-to-face. As a matter of fact I’ll even go as far to say, what you are planning on doing with all those AskEd questions, is EXACTLY the kind of thing you should be doing every single week.
I don’t mean you should stop doing interviews. What I really mean is stop talking the language you think we want to hear and start talking your language. If you’re awesome in one to one conversations, do the majority of your work like that. Let’s get out there in town halls. Let’s invite people to the Leg to have lunch with you every single day. Make AskEd and ongoing thing for crying out loud!
Another added benefit? Because people will have connected with you one-on-one, when you do stumble over your words in front of a camera they will be WAY more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.
4. Talk for yourself - Please forgive my language but I think it is important to underscore the importance of this point: No one gives a flying fuck what Tom Olsen thinks. People don’t want quotes from him, they want quotes from you. I’d bet 90% of Albertans don’t even know who Tom Olsen is. So why have him talking to the media? At the same time 90% of what Olsen says in the paper would sound WAY more convincing if it was coming from someone with actual power. Namely you.
You are the Premier. You’re the guy in charge, so get out there and show them that not only are you in charge, but you’re attentive and present on all matters. You can’t defer both the “listening” and “talking” parts of your job. Even if you don’t think this is what you’ve done, I’m telling you it’s what’s happening when a communications director speaks for you. It creates a barrier between you and the voting public. Why would you possibly want to purposefully create barriers like that?
5. Ignore your communications people – Yeah, yeah, I’m basically saying ignore everything I’m telling you too. But I hope you can see a theme in the previous four points: be true to yourself, be open and transparent. If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s what you promised Albertans after you became the Premier. And we feel like we’re still waiting for that. You’ve let us down and that’s surprising. You’re Honest Ed! You’re the guy everybody likes! You’re the guy who can tell us the truth and expect us to handle it. That’s what you used to be known for, so don’t run away from it. It’s not a weakness, it’s your advantage!
Besides, we already know honesty works in Alberta. Just ask your predecessor’s polling numbers after any time he was, perhaps, a little too honest. Trust your gut. You know what the right thing is to do. So do it and stop letting PR people synthesize everything into an over-thought puddle of communications goo.
So there you have it; five points to think about off the top of my head. I know there are many others, but I have my own boss to make sound good. You are welcome to take the advice for what it’s worth and what you’ve paid for it. Or you’re welcome to start implementing it and see where it gets you.
If it works, ‘where it gets you’ will probably be the opposite of where you are now. And judging by how things are going with your communications tactics up until this point, I’m guessing the opposite of what you have now would be a weight off your shoulders.