Analysis

5 crisis-management lessons in the PMO's Mike Duffy emails

Combing through hundreds of pages of Prime Minister's Office emails released by the court at the trial of Senator Mike Duffy this week, it takes only a half-dozen pages to realize what this was all about: an exercise in crisis communications management. PR consultant Bill Walker looks at whether it worked.

Hundreds of pages of emails released at the senator's trial reveal attempts at damage control

The trial of Senator Mike Duffy, centre, has heard about emails between former chief of staff Nigel Wright, left, senior aide Ray Novak, right, and other Conservative colleagues in the PMO and the Senate. (Justin Tang and Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Combing through all of the hundreds of pages of Prime Minister's Office emails released by the court in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy this week, it takes only a half-dozen pages to realize what this was all about: an exercise in crisis communications management.

Was the PMO successful?

In my view people and organizations win at crisis management when they put the public interest first and push their own self-interest to the back of the line.

Whether Stephen Harper's office is judged to have done that or not — put the public interest first — may ultimately be judged on Oct. 19.

The very real danger to Conservatives is that voters will conclude the PMO put its own political self-interests first. After all, we elect politicians to represent us, not themselves.

Here are the top 5 crisis communications lessons we learned in the Duffy emails:

1.  Email will come back to bite you

How many cases of leaked or court-revealed emails will it take for people to finally realize you cannot freely continue to express your anger, frustrations, opinions or allegations without public repercussions? When issues become sensitive, take it offline. That the PMO did not realize this is, frankly, mind-boggling.

2. Don't lie, just come clean

Why did Duffy evade a reporter's questions in April 2013 about whether he had paid the expense money back, when he had actually done so the previous month? "We'll just unleash (Sen.) Tkachuk, who will call him a thief," Wright wrote after a Global News story aired, apparently fearing Duffy might be after more money. More importantly, why the "big lie" of trying to convince Canadians that Duffy paid back his own expenses, when in fact it was to be party money at first and later Nigel Wright's cheque that actually made it happen?

3. Don't shut down, open up

The hundreds of pages are riddled with graphic detail of the PMO's determination to control every written word and utterance on this issue. This is classic damage control, and is classically where most people fail in crisis management because they never understand that one very bad day of coming clean is better than weeks and months of crisis details being publicly peeled off like an onion. We see that the prime minister specifically asked for edits to a Senate audit subcommittee report on residency — more evidence of controlling behaviour from the very top.

4. It's the cover up, not the crime

The real issue should be the fraudulent expense claims. But the PMO's determination to massage and control and manipulate has made the story about the cover up — and, as Watergate demonstrated, that's what people remember most. That's why the phrase "We are good to go from the PM" will live on in political history books.

5. Put public interest ahead of self interest

With references to "hurting the PM" and other attempts to shut down comments and heavily control what was released, it's difficult to see evidence in these emails of the public interest being the priority for the PMO. Instead, self-interest prevailed, making more prescient Wright's email warning: "I think that this is going to end badly."

Bill Walker is president of MidtownPR and the author of "Crisis Communications in the 24/7 Social Media World." He was previously the Ottawa and Washington bureau chief of the Toronto Star. Follow him @billwalkerpr

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