Election 2015: Public (relations) Enemy #1


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By: James Di Fiore

It’s not easy for busy Canadians to closely follow the innards of the Mike Duffy Trial. Most of us work full time jobs, have families to consider, need downtime, and, if we aren’t working that second job or running errands, we’d like to have a decent night’s sleep too.

So, the average Canadian has a fairly low interest in politics these days, but when they do tune in something happens. They can’t quite put their finger on it, but it still manages to thrust them away from the issues and back into their lives with rolled eyes and a cemented apathy towards the items they likely should deem as important. Often, the media is blamed. Sometimes the old reliable adage that ‘every politician is corrupt’ is all we need to feel justified in not paying attention. Those two reasons are both legit and plausible, but they are not the root cause of apathy among typical Canadians.

The real culprit dampening our desire to hone in on the failures of elected leadership is an entirely different beast; the despicable monster known simply as Public Relations.

PR is an industry built on the shoulders of deceit. It’s main purpose: to water down bare bones truth and replace it with an easy-to-digest message. It’s a symptom of a protectionist entity, usually corporate or governmental in nature, whose primary function is to swindle the public by orchestrating words into a state of plausibility, rather than a state of unbridled truth.

In Ottawa, especially over the past decade, the public relations industry has dominated government communications. To many, this sounds like an odd statement. After all, PR has always been the mechanism used to relay information to the public. But modern public relations has mutated from effective messaging into a diabolical game of legalese where the public is deliberately made to believe a narrative that eases them into believing something that isn’t true, or designed to create a staleness only apathy can really cure. The PR in government messaging, executed mostly by politicians with legal backgrounds, serves to protect the interests of the governing party as they work to retain power at all costs. The Duffy trial is a quintessential example, and as we watch the curtain rise we should be able to recognize the extensive damage immediately.

Court documents have unearthed the blueprints used to mislead the public in relation to Senate expenses, the subsequent audit, the ‘media lines’ created for Duffy and conservative spokespeople, and the documented strategies for damage control before, during and after the scandal broke. Emails between conservative parliamentarians, staffers and lawyers show a culture of deception, conducted so reflexively that one walks away feeling like they had no moral compass other than loyalty to their party and, perhaps more tellingly, to their leader, Stephen Harper. Nigel Wright, whose personal PR had created an almost mythological figure that seemed to arrive in Ottawa on foot via the Rideau Canal in the summertime, personifies the power of having a stellar personal brand. Media pundits, politicians, and the corporate elite all sang his praises, despite his admission that he supplied the $90, 000 cheque to a senator who, upon accepting the money, was charged with receiving a bribe. Only good PR could take a man in his situation and spin the script until the public believed he was an infallible soul who merely made a mistake out of a sense of altruism. The evidence now shows Wright was conspiring with his party to trick the public into thinking Duffy used his own money to pay back his expenses, a discovery that proves Wright was more concerned with protecting his boss, leaving taxpayers in the dark and irony in the glaring sun. Punctuating this irony, Wright had the gall to quote scripture from the witness stand, portraying himself as the patron saint of plausible deniability for Harper, and by doing so smacked the manufactured halo that good PR had given him clear off his head.

But wait, what about that apathetic Canadian public? Will this scandal open their eyes to the damage public relations has done to governments in power? Honestly, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Our citizens have Public Relations Fatigue, a condition that works to create a white noise whenever the truth does happen to slip through the cracks. After all, whether it was about fighter jets, muzzling scientists, a gazebo, mission creep, a surplus, or any of the other missteps, gaffes or scandals, this government has always remained consistent in one fundamental area: tell them nothing, pretend you are transparent, spin, pivot and repeat.

However, as we go to work, spend time with our kids, catch some downtime, run errands and tuck ourselves in, perhaps we will finally hear a sound bite from our media that holds our leaders accountable.

Not just for breaking the rules and behaving corruptly, but for utilizing shady PR tricks that enable this behavior in the first place.

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