Politics

StatsCan hired PR firm to prevent 'reputational damage' after outcry over plan to gather banking records

Statistics Canada was so concerned over the potential damage to its reputation following revelations the agency was requesting customer transaction data from banks, it hired a PR firm to help "re-establish" control over its public image, CBC News has learned.

Request for proposals not posted publicly, sent directly to shortlisted suppliers last December

Statistics Canada is modernizing its data gathering techniques, which include experimenting with new public and private sources of administrative data, crowdsourcing and using scanner data. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Statistics Canada was so concerned over the potential damage to its reputation following revelations the agency was requesting customer transaction data from banks, it hired a public relations firm to help "re-establish" control over its public image.

A document obtained by CBC News through an access to information request show the federal statistics agency was deeply troubled by the maelstrom of criticism stemming from an Oct. 26, 2018, Global News report on its pilot project seeking detailed financial records from Canadian financial institutions. Weeks later, the agency discreetly and urgently solicited outside help.

Public uproar over a pilot project by Statistics Canada to gather personal transaction data from banks has led to an investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

"If the current situation is not mitigated without delay, the potential reputational damage to the agency over time could become irreversible. If this negatively-charged public discourse continues unchecked, there could be a significant reduction in the willingness of Canadians to participate in the agency's statistical operations," a request for proposal (RFP) document read.

The document stated that lower trust levels among Canadians could lead to lower participation rates in many of its voluntary and mandatory data collection and therefore reduce the quality of its data products.

"In order to respond to this rapidly evolving public environment, to re-establish some level of control over the public narrative about the agency … Statistics Canada is requesting the services of a public relations contractor," the document said.

According to a contract disclosure made by Statistics Canada last spring, Ottawa-based PR firm Brymark Promotions Inc. was the successful bidder, with a contract value of $14,012.

In many cases, government procurement information, such as tender opportunities or RFPs, is posted publicly for companies to bid on, but in the case of this contract, Statistics Canada opted to send out direct solicitations to the companies themselves.

"The RFP was never posted publicly and was sent directly to the suppliers [traditional competitive]. This strategy was selected as the Goods and Services Identification Number Code T004 — Public Relations Services … is exempt from the trade agreements. All rules set out by PSPC for the tendering of contracts were followed," Statistics Canada spokesperson Laurence Beaudoin-Corriveau told CBC News in an email. PSPC refers to Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Get ahead of 'message delivery machinery'

The agency's strategy outlined in the document involved getting ahead of what it called the "message delivery machine" and guiding the public narrative back to a more positive tone.

Turnaround times expected by Statistics Canada were so quick that potential bidders balked at the time-frames calling them "unrealistic," according to the document obtained by CBC News. The agency responded to the supplier that "it is the urgent nature of our pressing requirement that drive these constraints. Sentiment noted."

Among the deliverables expected by the agency was a so-called sentiment analysis following negative press and an accounting of the key players who have been shaping the public discourse on the issue.

The project also called for the identification of third-party endorsers who could validate Statistics Canada methods and goals and influence the course of the public discourse.

CBC News reached out to Brymark Promotions for comment and public examples of the work it did for Statistics Canada. The company did not respond.

Privacy investigation continues

Under the Statistics Act, the agency can require third-party organizations to disclose information that would "assist Statistics Canada in fulfilling its mandate." Statistics Canada has already been collecting personal information for years, including medical records related to cancer and annual tax filings, and it is increasingly seeking new sources of reliable and timely data across the country.

More recently, the agency had also announced it would be acquiring details on the credit history of Canadians from credit reporting agency TransUnion. 

Even though StatsCan has been making similar types of requests for years, the data collection project was put on hold when the privacy commissioner formally launched an investigation after its office received complaints in November 2018.

The investigation is still ongoing with no estimated end date, confirmed a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

During a Senate committee in December, the president and CEO of the Canadian Bankers Association said his organization would not exclude the possibility of taking legal action to block Statistics Canada from obtaining clients' data.

The association's spokesperson, Mathieu Larbrèche, said it had no further comment, noting the Statistics Canada's project was currently on hold.

Modernization of data collection

In an announcement in January, Anil Arora, the country's chief statistician explained that the agency's modernization efforts are both in response to a greater need for timely and accurate electronic data, but also because of concerns over questionnaire burnout and fatigue.

Statistics Canada Chief Statistician Anil Arora says personal information is carefully protected and never shared publicly. (CBC)

In addition to running pilot projects such as the aborted banking information attempt, Statistics Canada is also experimenting with new public and private sources of administrative data, crowdsourcing and using scanner data.

Statistics Canada would not directly respond to questions about the PR contract.

In an email to CBC News, Martin Magnan, manager of strategic communications and stakeholder relations for the agency, wrote:

"In this increasingly data-centric society, we have heard Canadians' desire to want to know more about the important work we do on their behalf and how we protect their privacy and confidentiality.

That is why we have taken steps, such as the establishment of an online Trust Centre and the hiring of external advisers, to continue to find ways to enhance the way we communicate and engage with Canadians. The aim of this twofold approach is to enable Canadians to get the facts about our practices and to engage them in a dialogue on how we can improve our communications and approach."

The office of the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development ⁠—the ministry responsible for Statistics Canada⁠— did not respond to requests for comment.

About the Author

Jacques Marcoux

Data journalist

Jacques Marcoux is a CBC News investigative reporter specializing in data analysis. Previously he worked as a multiplatform reporter for the CBC's French network Radio-Canada, as a public relations officer in the agricultural industry and worked in competitive intelligence gathering in the financial industry. Confidential email: jacques.marcoux@cbc.ca

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