Could Any Amount of PR Have Helped Elizabeth May?

As an employee of a media-monitoring service provider, I’m pretty much addicted to the news. It’s become a part of my regular routine – most mornings, I scour news sites and twitter feeds, searching for stories (and soon-to-be stories) that I can run through Gnowit’s CoreAlerts system. My goal is always to find writing material; I look for big-picture context and overlooked details, pieces of information most people seem to have missed. This week, one story dominated many of my usual sources. I bet that, even if you hadn’t read the title of this blog post, you would be able to guess which one it was.

Elizabeth May’s press gallery dinner speech – described by many as “bizarre” – was analyzed from nearly every conceivable angle. John Ivison of the National Post claimed there was “no excuse” for May’s behaviour. The Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick said there was “nothing wrong” with it. At iPolitics, Steve Sullivan asked why we allowed the incident to distract us from important political developments that were occurring at the same time. I’m talking about it now.

I’m a bit late to the party, I admit. But it’s only after days of seeing polarized editorials, endless comment sections filled with attacks and defenses, and even panels on what constitutes good comedy (May has characterized the incident as a foolish attempt at edgy humour) that I began to think about the story from a public relations perspective.

Canadian Politics and Public Relations

In a 2010 Globe and Mail editorial, Jeffery Simpson criticizes the Harper administration for what he sees as its “preoccupation with message control, photo ops, and spin.” “Spontaneity is the sworn enemy of this government”, Simpson asserts. Certainly, spending on communications has risen in recent years, growing 15.3% between 2006 and June of 2013. That said, the conservatives don’t have a monopoly on the use of public relations tactics. A CBC article from 2014 discusses (what was previously considered to be) an American trend among politicians: publishing a memoir before an election. The article describes how memoirs can “humanize” candidates, and notes that it’s a tactic Jean Cretien, Justin Trudeau, and Toronto NDP mayoral candidate Olivia Chow have all employed.

It may leave a sour taste in the mouths of some Canadians, but politics and PR have never been closer. Jeffrey Simpson precedes his critique of the conservative government by acknowledging that “centralized control of messaging has been a growing feature in federal governments – indeed, governments in many democracies”. Rob Ford notwithstanding, media training and other PR activities have had a huge impact on the way Canadian governments operate. In this environment, the media’s fascination with Elizabeth May’s humiliation should come as no surprise.

Know an Audience

But it wasn’t just the gap between May’s speech and the speeches of most other politicians, who tend to use speaking engagements to reinforce carefully-crafted messages, that caused a flurry of commentary. Nor can the media’s extensive coverage of the episode fully explain the public’s response. There was another, particularly Canadian factor at play.

Numerous media outlets highlighted Elizabeth May’s use of the f-word, calling her speech “profanity-laden”. While the word has been used at the press gallery dinner before, many viewed its usage in this instance as part of a particularly crude performance. Critic John Ivison asserted that “no one needed to hear the Green leader veer into Freudian territory, discussing oral, anal and genital obsessions over coffee and pecan pie.” A slew of comments at the end of almost every news story covering the event called her “classless” and “disrespectful”.

May’s eccentric reputation certainly didn’t help the situation. Many were quick to recall other unexpected speeches and comments she’s made in the past. But I would argue that much of the public’s reaction resulted from a part of the Canadian consciousness (a part that has, in some ways, been further cemented in the era of the “permanent campaign”). Unlike our neighbours to the south, who are still making Monica Lewinsky jokes, we don’t want to know too much about the personal lives of those who represent us. And despite how heated debates regularly get on parliament hill, many across the nation still assume that a measure of decorum exists there. A belief in civility, and in the distinction between public and private life – there are traits that have survived the reality t.v. era (at least when it comes to the political arena).

So, why didn’t Elizabeth May know better? Was she really unaware of how the situation would be perceived by the populace? Didn’t she understand the environment she was operating in – the workings of the media and the way they shape the Canadian consciousness? How well did she understand her own reputation going into the situation? She certainly didn’t seem to know her comedic shortcomings. From a PR perspective, these questions may be more important than anything May did after the event. Her apology did, after all, come swiftly; and though some – like John Crean of National Public Relations – have suggested that she seemed like someone making excuses, May sounded regretful. The real question isn’t so much about damage control as it is about how, even in a supposedly exhausted state, a politician could be so unaware of the impression her words would make.


How Good PR Could Have Helped

Good PR isn’t just about reacting (though dealing with crisis is a crucial component of the field). Whenever possible, a proactive approach is best. Keeping a a close eye on events, understanding the context in which they occur – even knowing what constitutes a relevant event – these are all things that a professional trained in understanding the media can do. A strategy for monitoring and analyzing the public and journalistic attitudes expressed in the media is, for public figures, indispensable. These strategies lead to a full understanding of one’s situation, which forms the foundation for beneficial action.

I don’t know anything about Elizabeth May’s communication strategy, but I can say with a good deal of certainty that it’s nothing like those of her more powerful counterparts. The odd past behaviour that was recalled so quickly after her recent blunder – such as her since-retracted support of disgraced CBC host Jian Gomeshi – occurred without adequate forethought, without a careful weighing of the facts.

A 2013 article published by the Canadian Press succinctly describes the challenges contemporary politicians face when dealing with the public. “Ottawa appears to be struggling with [the] same issues as governments across the country and the world,” the article states. “A breakneck-paced, 24-hour news cycle displayed across a multitude of platforms.” In such an environment, it is the less-powerful public figures – those who don’t have the resources or experience to manage bad press easily – who need to fully understand the context in which they exist.

Feature Image: Karen Fox