Graham Steele: When a communicator fails to communicate

Stephen McNeil has abruptly parted ways with his communications director, Kyley Harris.
Kyley Harris was fired this week as Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil's director of communications. (Twitter)

Stephen McNeil has abruptly parted ways with his communications director, Kyley Harris.

We don’t know anything about the underlying facts that led to Harris’s arrest two weeks ago, other than that the allegation is assault of a domestic partner. The alleged assault will play out in the legal process, as it should.

Harris was fired not because of what allegedly happened that night, but because of what happened afterwards; or to be precise, what didn’t happen.

He didn’t tell his boss.

The premier says it was only when a reporter called his office, four days after the alleged assault, that he was informed of Harris’s arrest.

The director of communications had failed to communicate.

Presumably Harris knew the realities of political life in a small province like Nova Scotia. It’s a big small village. It’s almost impossible to keep a secret. It took only a few days for the chatter to reach a reporter’s ears.

Besides, political people know that one of their first calls, when they get in trouble, is to their bosses. The political imperative is to manage the problem. The problem can’t be managed if it’s kept secret.

These days the political bosses are in the premier’s office, so those calls go to one of the premier’s top staff: the chief of staff, or the principal secretary. Their phones are never off, and the confession booth is always open.

Confessional call

When the confessional call comes in—and it happens more often than you might think, since politicians are human—a quick triage is done. What are the facts? Who else knows? What are the chances of keeping it out of public view? What will it take to make it go away?

All of this requires quick, sure judgment. Depending on the seriousness of the incident, every move—including who tells the premier, and what, and when—might one day be in the public spotlight.

It’s easier to deal with a wayward staffer, because they can always be let go or transferred. Usually there’s an implicit deal: if they go without a fuss, they’ll be assured of a soft landing. In this case, for whatever reason, Harris chose not to go quietly.

It’s much harder dealing with a wayward politician, because an MLA can’t be terminated or transferred. The premier doesn’t decide who sits in the House of Assembly. So the options are more limited, and more nuclear: expel the MLA from caucus; and in the case of a minister, turf them from cabinet. 

Because these options are so harsh, the usual political instinct is to hush things up. You get the MLA a doctor, a priest, a lawyer, a counselor, whatever they need. You tell them to take a long holiday. You tell them not to answer the phone for a while.

Harder to keep things quiet

Keeping things quiet is not as easy as it used to be. When everybody’s carrying a camera and a recorder around with them, and when everybody’s a click or two away from publishing a politician’s peccadilloes to the world, it’s harder than ever to keep things quiet. Exhibit A: Rob Ford.

That’s why, over the past number of years, the advice is usually to fess up. Admit your mistakes, seek help if you need it, take your lumps. Voters are forgiving in the face of genuine contrition.

Kyley Harris had to go because he never made that first phone call. He didn’t give his bosses a chance to work through the options.

Has the McNeil government been damaged by all this? Kyley Harris was a high-level player. He would have attended every cabinet meeting, and had more access to the premier than any backbench MLA or cabinet minister. When somebody like that is fired, it rattles everybody inside the government.

They are rattled, yes, but they will settle down and move on. They dealt with it quickly. They slipped a bit by first putting Harris on paid leave, but within a few days they moved decisively. There was no attempt at a cover-up. Politically, they’ll be fine.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.