Does Ottawa's skip-the-media strategy get the message out?

Government critics of the media seem increasingly convinced these days that they can do the job of communicating a message to the public better than journalists can. Unfortunately, evidence to date suggests that, for the most part, they're not succeeding.

Communicating directly is fine, but it also helps to hit the target with relevant information

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's '24 Seven' weekly video, produced by the Prime Minister's Office, has gone daily. (pm.gc.ca)

Government critics of the media seem increasingly convinced these days that they can do the job of communicating a message better than journalists can — and, as a result, they are coming up with their own approaches.

Which would be fine, at least from the critics' perspective, if they were right. Unfortunately, evidence to date suggests that, for the most part, they really aren't. Efforts to eliminate the middleman often end up muddling the message.

As The Canadian Press reported over the weekend, the Canada Revenue Agency is considering setting up a special website to counter media reports that, in its view, fail to include the "positive messaging" provided to reporters.

Meanwhile, seemingly undaunted by the stubbornly lacklustre viewer numbers for its weekly "24-Seven" video recap, the prime minister's in-house web team has launched a daily version.

The image-heavy, tablet-ready site is dominated by links to standard government policy-boosting boilerplate reworked into lists — "Seven reasons to become an apprentice," "Four ways families will pay less tax in 2015" — as well as such features as a 600-word essay on Sir John A. Macdonald and a timeline of the search for the Franklin expedition.

And right about here is where some readers, at least, are probably readying themselves for yet another finger-wagging tirade against this government's relentless efforts to find new ways to communicate its message directly to Canadians, rather than be forced to run the gauntlet of the press gallery. 

Surprise! This isn't that. Well, not exactly.

When it comes to comment, relevance counts

First, on the Canada Revenue Agency project — which CP reports received a green light last fall but has yet to go live — you'd be hard-pressed to find a journalist who would object to agency officials posting a response when hit with a flurry of requests on a topic.

That doesn't mean those same reporters wouldn't prefer a personal reply — ideally, one that takes into account the specific question and not a cookie-cutter statement that may not meet their needs.

As the revenue agency proposal implicitly acknowledges, if the government won't talk to journalists, there are any number of other voices keen to fill that silence, from opposition members to academics to interest groups.   

There is nothing problematic about the agency posting what the memo describes as "relevant, approved material in instances where a journalist has written an article without reflecting the CRA's input."

For many reporters, the frustration in trying to extract information from a department or agency is that far too often the "approved" material isn't "relevant."

Instead of clear answers, the media often get general comments so broad as to be all but meaningless.

That could be less the fault of departmental media relations officers and more the result of centralized message-control by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office.

If government bodies regularly delivered "relevant, approved material" to reporters, it would almost certainly be included in coverage.

Maybe a more open-handed approach to media relations would negate the need for a section devoted to after-the-fact rebuttals.

24 Seven in search of audience

As for the latest evolution in prime ministerial infomercials, if Stephen Harper's communications staffers are keen to share his activities with a wider audience, they could always start opening up more of his events to the press — or at least, a pool reporter, à la White House presidential protocol.

In addition to the '24 Seven' weekly video, the Prime Minister's Office has recently launched a daily newsletter. (pm.gc.ca)
Many media outlets are reluctant to use handout photos from the Prime Minister's Office (or from any party or government-paid photographer); allowing the media to take their own is a better guarantee they'll be used. 

While it would mean giving up absolute control over the final product, it would almost certainly reach a wider audience through a medium that still holds some credibility with Canadians.

A professional broadcast journalist, for instance, could likely edit down this 15-minute video from Harper's recent appearance at the British Columbia Institute for Technology into a highlight reel that would be watched by more than 71 diehard 24 Seven fans.

In the meantime, however, the 24 Seven media empire seems far more likely to be bookmarked by journalists keeping tabs on the taxpayer-funded initiatives the Prime Minister's Office is — or isn't — going out of its way to tout during the lead-up to the next election.

And when the writs are issued for the next campaign, we can expect each party to follow the Conservatives' lead and post its own exclusive footage from the hustings, only to be frustrated when it ends up on the cutting room floor.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.