Advice for politicians caught in the media firestorm

Anybody who engages in public life with a desire to make a contribution will sooner or later go through the "living hell" of a media firestorm, writes Stockwell Day. But, he argues, even with the heat from the media and the so-called Twitterverse, patience and grace under fire can be virtues.
The RCMP confirmed this month that Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, won't face charges over a $90,000 payment he made to cover Senator Mike Duffy's expenses. Wright resigned a year ago following media coverage of the payment and had been under investigation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

For bad news buffs, particularly those of a political bent, recent headlines themselves have been bad news.

That's because some political news of late relating to the federal government has been, well, good news:

My reason for highlighting these is not to cheer or jeer any individual or party. It is to focus on that most feared of political phenomena, widely known as the "media feeding frenzy" or "media firestorm."

Speaking from painful experience (sometimes as a result of my own mistakes), it's my observation that anybody who engages in public life with a desire to make a contribution will sooner or later, and probably more than once, go through this "living hell."

Being savaged day after day across all forms of media from coast to coast in a relentless scorching really is something you should never wish even on your worst enemy. (Though I have to admit, when your worst enemy is getting fried in that furnace it's hard to not to feel a teeny bit of glee.)

Add to the countless self-appointed flame throwers on social media. Many of these folks seem infused with a prior condition of bitterness towards anybody who dares to have a different view than theirs.

Focus this incendiary mix on the apparent missteps of one individual or organization and you have all the components of a personal thermonuclear experience.

Freedom of speech vs. freedom to tweet

I need to add I am a sincere advocate of the democratization of freedom of expression through the availability of social media. Though I'm often dismayed at the inability of some to engage in robust debate without spewing invective, I will always vigorously defend their right to do so.

As a matter of fact, though I decry bullying and intimidation, I worry when we see rulings that are an encroachment of freedom of speech just because a particular opinion is unpopular or may make some people feel uncomfortable.

But for those who face or will face the firestorm, there is hope for recovery.

There is increasing evidence the broader public is becoming a tad dismissive of what some in the media refer to as an "explosion in the Twitterverse" on any particular issue.

When people start to do the math, one or two themes may emerge.

First, the "universe" that is exploding is often only a tiny — albeit activist — sliver of the overall population.

Second, many times the apparently spontaneous expression is actually a result of coordination among groups that have well-honed lists of responders willing and able to fire out intimidating messages to media networks or even to advertisers on those networks.

This observation is not to diminish the importance of any view, enraged or not. It is simply to advise the recipient of attacks to not overreact, especially if the attack is unfair or untrue.

If the attackers are correct, it's never wise to cover up — better to 'fess up. But don't rush to confess to something that is not accurate just to turn down the heat.

As my three examples at the start of this article demonstrate, patience and grace under fire are not easy virtues, but often they will have the last word.

I often recall the advice given to me as a young, newly elected rookie by a seasoned veteran of political wars.

"Just because somebody in media says 'Boo!,' doesn't mean you have to jump."


Stockwell Day, a senior federal cabinet minister from 2006 to 2011, when he chose not to seek re-election, has been minister of public safety and international trade, as well as head of the Treasury Board. He is a regular contributor on the CBC News Network's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.


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