Spin Cycles: The spin doctor is in
Paul Rhodes Interview
February 9, 2007
IB: Let's talk about the managing of the media during the election campaign. One of the things that I'd read about your campaign was that you seemed to really go out of your way to keep the media happy. Why was that part of the strategy? Providing them with all kinds of facilities that they needed [inaudible] food on that bus and those kinds of things…
PR: Well, I've been a reporter on a campaign bus and I can tell you that there are few things worse than being on a bus where you're getting what you need to get your job done. We didn't do this to create favour. We did this to make sure that the reporters could function properly and get the job done because if you had an unhappy reporter or they didn't have the facilities to be able to file their stories, then we weren't getting our message out. We wanted to make sure that they were happy because happy people do a better job, not necessarily better for us but they weren't crabby or grumpy about another issue. And having been on those campaign buses before, it's the very small things that cause you to become unhappy. You're in a bus with a bunch of complete strangers. You're traveling around to exotic parts of the community in your province or country. You're away from home. You're tired and the one thing we didn't want to do is make people unhappy than they otherwise were for being there.
IB: It also can reflect, cause them to reflect better on your campaign.
PR: I don't think it causes them to reflect better. I think if you don't provide some basic comforts for the media then, when they're unhappy, it can reflect negatively. I've been a reporter. On days when I was unhappy about an unrelated event, I might have been a little bit harder on the subject I was interviewing. I might have been a little more negative in the story simply because I was unhappy and that's a natural human reaction. If you get pulled over by a police officer who is having a good day, getting a ticket's going to be a lot easier. If he's having a bad day for other reasons it might not be as pleasant.
IB: Another thing you did was that you restricted the number of events that you scheduled. What was your strategy?
PR: Well I think what you want to do is not get into situations where you're going to make mistakes and if we had one or two events each day, that was all we needed to get our message out. Putting together a campaign, the logistics of going from one place to another, is complicated because you don't just hop on the bus and go. You've got people planning routes, people who are making sure venues are appropriate, that everything goes smoothly. So if you do fewer events, then you can put all your talents into making that one event better than if you do five or six events that aren't as good.
IB: You talked about the importance of discipline. Why is discipline so important on a campaign and in government?
PR: Well we go back to what we'd said before. As the public attention is very limited, there are many other forms of media that are competing for their attention and we want to make sure that everyone's giving the same message on a particular day so that we stand a greater chance of breaking through. Message discipline is important because in government, if you suddenly have seven or eight competing messages, you create the public appearance of a rabble and if you're not getting out the same message on a constant basis, doing it professionally, then the public starts to lose confidence in the government of the day.
IB: The downside of all this is that is what the media often says you are running a bubble campaign.
PR: Usually I found the media uses the accusation of a bubble campaign when they don't have enough contact with the leader. If they don't have a scrum after every event, that they aren't getting the interviews that they need to have, they can't through to the people at campaign headquarters they need to talk to. And that's part of what running a professional campaign is, is that you have to be there to meet the media's needs so they can get their stories out. As far as meeting people are concerned, we try and do it as much as we can during an election campaign. It's not always possible. You can't do 15 events a day where you're hand-shaking because eventually you see nothing but the person shaking hands and have no idea of what he's saying while you run the risk that your other opponent is doing a message event and delivering something of some value to the people watching TV.
IB: What's your general philosophy in terms of the media. Do you see them as being friends and foes and do you see them as representing the public interest
PR: My philosophy on the media is that they are a means for us to get our message out if we are doing our job well. I don't have foes in the media. I have some friends. People with whom I have friendly relationships dating back to when I was a reporter. But they have a job to do and I have a job to do. That job to them is to write stories, to air or print. My job is to make sure that the stories they are airing or printing are the ones that I think I would like them to have. I don't dislike the media as a group. There are some individuals that from time to time I probably wouldn't want to be close to but I think that happens in any endeavour. To say that they represent the public, per se, no. In government the elected representatives elect the public. The media are a measure against what public opinion is but often the media doesn't reflect actual public opinion. If it did, we probably wouldn 't have won the 1995 election.
IB: Do you see the media almost like another special interest group?
PR: It's an audience. It's an audience that's very important to people in public life. It's important to people like me because I know what a 30 second ad on Hockey Night in Canada costs. I know that if I'm doing my job well, I can get on to the newscast for a lot less money.
IB: You talked about some media that was friendly to you. Did you sometimes reward them by leaking information to them in advance?
PR: What was important was getting the message out in the most effective way. I never leaked anything but let me define what a leak is. To me a leak is an uncontrolled release of information that does the government public damage. Did I occasionally pre-release information to selected reporters for the purpose of enhancing my news coverage? Absolutely. But and that was with a spin by the way, the way I phrased that, what we would do is aware of the media's competitive nature occasionally provide advance looks at stories to reporters because if they had it exclusively it would require higher prominence in the newspaper or on TV simply because they had it and nobody else did. We were going to be announcing it the next day so it was hardly what I considered to be a great benefit to the reporter but it was important to the outlets. If it got greater prominence then the other media would follow and as a result this was a more effective way of getting our message out. But this wasn't a beneficial senior media adviser walking around dropping "bon mots" on friends. What it was generally rewarding the harder effort that a lot of reporters put in to what they were doing? There's a saying in my business that you have to "feed the beast" being the media and if the beast isn't fed, it'll eat you. So if a reporter is working hard, talking to the contacts, doing the job they're paid to do, they're going to find a story eventually. I'd rather it be the story that I had for them than what my opponent has for them or someone who might not be on our message of the day. So it's a way of being able to keep your message in front of the media to do it effectively. It's not something that we did a lot but most of the time it was done with reporters who had actually put in the extra effort and the reports who complained the most about it were the ones that actually weren't working that hard.
IB: Did these strategic pre-releases ever come with conditions, like okay we'll give you this but you can't go and talk to the opposition or to experts?
PR: No, no. You can't put conditions on a reporter. My approach to the media, having been on both sides of it, is you really can't control the media. If you try and get into that negotiation then you're going to lose, if not that particular moment, you're going to lose it down the road. You can't control the media but you can control yourself. Far be it from me to suggest that occasionally if I was doing a pre-release I might give it to a reporter late enough in the day to make his deadline but with not enough time to be able to phone and get negative reaction. To me that's a very reasonable tactic and the reporters perhaps wouldn't be surprised by that if that happened to them. And there's lots of time for reaction the next day, but understand from my perspective is I don't even mind the negative reaction as long as it's on our message. If our message is getting out, whether people are in favour of it or against it, then we don't mind. We just want to get our message out. Now and I will tell you this particular story, is that I had a bit of information I thought would be beneficial to a reporter, a couple of broadcast reporters, and I provided it to them and the story wasn't on the information, it was on why it was being leaked out. Well, okay, you had a good story and you decided to turn it into a process analysis of hard communications strategy, which is fine, that 's your story, but it wasn't exactly what I thought was the most appropriately covered.
IB: The difference between the first day story and the second day story, is that the first day story is essentially a free ride and by the time the second day comes around, if the first day story is really just "later today the government is going to announce x" and the second day story is "the government announced 'x' and this guy said this about it and that guy said that about it, there's a big difference between those two stories because it's entirely possible that the people won't even look at the second day story because the first day story satisfied their needs.
PR: Yes, but I've met my objective if I have the story running over two days with my message. To me it's about the ability to be able to, when it's on your message if; you can get two days out of it instead of one, that's a good thing. I don't think anybody in the media is given free rides in return for getting exclusive stories. I 've never seen that. If that were the case then everybody would be doing it and then we'd be essentially just a rabble.
IB: I've had people, Queen's Park reporters; tell me that sometimes they would be asked to run stories "clean", without getting comments from other people.
PR: Well, it wasn't anything I asked them to do. I think if you go back and talk to the reporters who were there at the same time I never said, "look, here's the story but I want you to run it clean." I would give it to them in such a way that they couldn't resist running it clean. I know how they think. I know how they operate and if it's toward the end of the day they've got other big news stories that have been out and reporters are people. They're not; we're all people for that matter. It's getting near the end of the day and the report has kids to pick up at the day care and get something conclusive, he's probably going to run it the way I wrote it as opposed to spending a lot of time getting reaction to it.
IB: I can understand why that would make you happy, when that would happen. Does it ever make you wonder about the press, that essentially they're putting out, they're taking press releases and putting their name on it and essentially running them as news stories?
PR: I wouldn't want to dismay anybody but I've seen that happen a lot and when we write the news release, we write it so that it can be easily translated into a news story. Good news releases are exactly that. They're our version of the way we like the news story to look and if that helps facilitate the reporter write the story, then that's fine by me.
IB: But it's not what journalism's about. Journalism isn't supposed to be stenography. It's not supposed to be running print press releases.
PR: But that's a discussion to have with journalists and I don't disagree with you speaking in a very broad philosophical manner but the important part, if you're working for a premier or a prime minister is to get your message out. To have a message and get it out as effectively as you can and a reporter listening to this conversation isn't going to be terribly surprised by anything I've said. We live in the same environment whether it's Queen's Park or in a campaign bus. Many of us used to be reporters. We know how it works and they understand as well that they have every right to take that story that nobody else has and say no thanks. And sometimes I've had people say "no thanks, sorry I'm not interested in that story." That's fine. Then they don't want to cover the story but the very natural competitive nature of the media they're going to want that story.
IB: Reporters might not be surprised about all this, but I'm wondering if the general public would be surprised that there is so much manipulation going on.
PR: Well, I don't think it's manipulative. It's more practical as far as the way media and government interact. If government makes a mistake because of something inappropriate and improper, the media will report that with firm vigor and never give you a break. But what we're talking about is the day-to-day management of public announcements. If there is a leak of information that 's damaging, you'll never get a break from the media. What I'm doing is trying to enhance the quality of the coverage that we're getting, or the amount of the coverage we're getting so I don't think this is a condemnation of either me or certainly the members of the media who do this on a day-to-day basis. I think it's just a natural part of the process. So on the important issue you see the media giving the full analysis and vigor that we expect to see. On things that are not important, then they become stories that go into the newspaper and then out the next day.
IB: Let's talk about this word 'spin'. How do you define it?
PR: It's simply putting your best foot forward in communications. It's taking those facts that support your message and putting them in front of the media as opposed to the other person who's putting negative messages out. I said this a long time ago at a, during an interview, and it was quite controversial among certain circles that truth is subjective. If you put the same ten facts in front of two people, they will come away with two different truths based on their own perceptions, their own personal biases, where they came from. My job is to take those facts and arrange them in such an order that you're more inclined to believe my version of the truth than my opponent.
IB: If truth is subjective, does that mean, do you see a distinction between spin and lying?
PR: Absolutely. Anybody in my business who lies will get caught and when you get caught you're finished. A lie is a statement that is made that is known to be false for the purpose of deception. The more you do that, the more you risk being caught. However, if you take facts and put them in a certain order with a specific emphasis that allows the other person to believe a truth more in keeping with yours, then that 's not a lie. It is spin.
IB: And when people say that you're a spin doctor, do you take that as an insult, a compliment or how do you respond to that?
PR: Well, no. I call myself and old country spin doctor because I don't live in the city. No I don't find that pejorative at all. It's what we do.