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Yukonomist: The art of government communications

There is a dark side

Public communications is a difficult job. Done right, it can spread knowledge and inspire citizens to act. Anti-drunk-driving and anti-smoking communications, for example, have done a lot of good.

But the art of communication has a dark side, full of the spin and manipulation you see in cynical television shows like Yes, Minister or The Thick of It .

Would you like to know where you fall on the spectrum from earnest facts to full spin cycle? Try this test. I’ll give you some facts, and you have to choose the message you would recommend.

First, the facts. In 2008, Yukon Energy generated 1 gigawatt-hour (GWH) of electricity from diesel and 341 GWH from renewable sources. That’s 99.7 per cent renewable. In 2009, Prime Minister Harper and Premier Fentie announced the Mayo B renewable hydro facility, but over the subsequent decade its capacity was not enough to keep up with the growth in Yukon population and electrical gadgets. In 2018, 92 per cent of Yukon Energy’s power was renewable, and 8 per cent was from fossil fuels. Fossil power was about 36 GWH, or 36 times more than in 2008.

Now, the test. If you were given some tax money to spend on communications, what would your message be?

a) We regret to inform Yukoners that we didn’t build enough renewable energy capacity, despite producing several climate-change strategies, and emissions from our fossil fuel electricity have risen by 3500 per cent over the last ten years.

b) Yes, our rising electrical emissions are bad for the global climate, but at this point what really matters is taking action - so we’re announcing that the next budget will contain definite funding to actually build 100 GWH of new renewable capacity by 2025.

c) It is Stephen Harper’s fault since he didn’t also build Mayo C, D, E, F, G and H.

d) Have your say! We want to make sure 93 per cent of our electricity comes from renewable sources.

The answer the Yukon government recently chose was (d).

I saw (d) on a web ad while reading an article about happiness in the The Guardian, then again in the Atlantic. It has popped up many times since. It is one of the messages in the government press release asking Yukoners to comment on the new draft climate-change strategy.

Communications strategists like Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It would admire several things about (d).

First, the 93 per cent figure on renewable energy is accurate, but cleverly out of context. We were all conditioned in high school to think a score of 93 per cent is a good mark. So therefore the Yukon government must be doing well if 93 per cent of our power is renewable. The blurb is careful not to frame it as “Our ambition is to give up on getting back to the 99.7 per cent renewable power we enjoyed in 2008.”

Second, it communicates this message while officially being part of an ad to encourage Yukoners to participate in a public consultation. The government could get criticized if it bought an ad that simply bragged our electricity was 93 per cent renewable, but who could be against encouraging public consultation?

Political parties use a related tactic called push polling. If Jim is campaigning against Jane, then Jim’s polling team will commission telephone polls that ask voters questions like, “If you knew Jane ate boiled kittens for breakfast, would you be less likely to vote for her?”

Third, by using digital ads it is hard for the opposition to estimate how much the government is spending on advertising and criticize them for it. Unlike old-fashioned newspaper or radio ads, each digital ad is small, and no one can see how many times they run.

Back in 2014, former Commissioner Doug Bell pointed out to local media that when he was commissioner in the early 1980s he wrote his own press releases and the Yukon government had only one person handling public relations. He described Whitehorse as a “straight-talking town” back then.

Fast forward to today, when a quick scan of the Yukon government employee directory indicates at least 65 people have “communications” in their job titles, up from the 48 Bell counted in 2014. This doesn’t count contractors and other roles that may have communications duties.

One response to this problem would be to make it more difficult for citizens to scan the employee directory for the word “communications.”

A better one would be to fundamentally reset the government’s communications culture. Spin can be effective in the short term, sparing ministers and officials from awkward conversations.

But in the long run, it has two powerful negative effects. It makes citizens distrustful of government. Who can read the new climate change strategy, for example, without taking into account that a team of spinners may have scrubbed it of key facts?

A deeper, and possibly even more pernicious, effect is that government officials can start believing their own spin. If you are constantly inside the spin cycle, creating and reading torqued reports, briefing notes and talking points, you too may lose touch with unwelcome (but important) facts.

This is why wise governments set up independent referees on important topics. Think of the Auditor General that vets Yukon government departments, or the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer who tries to keep the Ottawa government on the straight and narrow about the nation’s finances.

I have called before for an independent territorial Legislative Budget Officer, like in Ontario.

Now that climate change has been recognized as a critical issue, that budget officer should also be responsible for objectively reporting on progress towards the nice-sounding targets in the draft climate change plan. I wouldn’t object to having a couple fewer government communications officials and a couple more independent analysts whose job was to tell us the un-spun truth.

In the meantime, I suggest the government put less effort into feel-good communications and more into actually building some renewable power plants.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.