Monday, May 14, 2007

A losing battle

Back on March 22nd of this year, I asked a couple of questions through official DND channels. This past Thursday, I finally received a response:

Question: Can anyone at DND tell me which subsection of the department wrote the Afghan detainee transfer agreement? And if it wasn't DND that wrote it, which federal department did?

Answer: The Afghan detainee transfer arrangement is an interdepartmentally agreed upon document.

Question: I'm also wondering if Gen Hillier signed it on his own authority, or was it suggested that he sign on behalf of the Cdn gov't by the MND or other political leadership at the time, or if it was his suggestion, but cleared with the minister?

Answer: The Chief of Defence Staff, General Hillier, signed the 2005 Afghan detainee transfer arrangement on behalf of the Government of Canada. The May 2007 supplementary arrangement, which can be found at, was signed by Canada's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani.

You've got to be kidding me.

You can only imagine how upset I was to get that sort of response after that length of time, when the course of current events has already passed the issue by almost completely - and especially since you can find more detail in the public domain.

So I vented to a few people with some knowledge of how governmental organizations - and specifically DND - communicate with the public. I asked what sort of idiocy it takes to break just about every public relations rule in the book like that. And instead of treating my questions as rhetorical ones, I got some interesting responses.

From outside of government:

This is a classic example of how the federal government responds to questions they don't want to answer.

By providing a vague response, not an answer, and taking a month and a half to write 52 words.

I wonder how many people were involved in preparing these non-answers over the last 6 weeks and what the cost of all that staff time was?

The first part of the first question is not addressed at all. The second part is barely, but why not say which departments were involved?

The second question is not answered at all. Every news outlet in the country reported that Hillier signed the Afghan detainee transfer arrangement - thanks for the update DND.

Right now some DND public affairs minion is sitting back thinking what a great spin-master (a term I hate, it means 'liar') they are to have crafted such a brilliant response to dodge a bullet.

What they actually did was not provide proper service to a Canadian who, by the way, pays their salary.

Not to mention, neither of these questions seem unreasonable, controversial or to be a security concern. Why not just answer them?

As soon as the government, DND in particular, learns to communicate properly, honestly and openly, they will find themselves in a lot less trouble a lot less often.

Did you catch that second line? The one that spells out just how abysmal a response that is? I'll point you to it again: "taking a month and a half to write 52 words."

No wonder DND gets its hindquarters handed to it by the media on an almost daily basis. And just imagine what the coverage would be like without the media embedding program that shows soldiers doing what soldiers do best - the mind boggles.

From within government, I got this response:

Do you think ADM PA is actually there to tell the stories of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen? It's not like they don't know the best practices, the "rules" of good communications. They just choose not to follow them.

Why do you think that is? Could it be that actions speak louder than words, and that the actions of those in charge at DND suggest that protecting the minister and protecting your superiors is more important than telling the story of the CF, no matter what's taught on Public Affairs courses?

What a depressing idea that is. But the more I think about it, the more insightful a statement it seems. That sort of mindset within DND Public Affairs is a millstone around the organization's neck in a whole host of ways, but two in particular stand out.

Firstly, if an underlying objective of your communications strategy is to protect the politicians in charge, your department will get tarred with a partisan brush. And as sure as God made little green soldiers, the politicians in charge will change at some point, and your department will be out in the cold.

That's bad for the CF, and it's bad for the country. Political staffers should keep their partisan fingers out of the CF communication strategy. CF Public Affairs should be about telling CF stories, and if the government of the day happens to be facilitating those stories, well, that's a pleasant PR bonus - not the objective.

Secondly, such a stunted communications strategy and/or execution makes you wonder if anyone at all within the chain of command understands that the information battle on the domestic front is what will allow the physical battle on the deployed operational front the time and resources required to succeed.

Think about it: if any other unit in the CF mishandled their stated mission as badly as the people who were tasked with answering my questions did, they'd be relieved of their duties and stuffed in personnel slots where they posed no danger to themselves or others. That DND Public Affairs and those responsible for answering media queries get away with performance that would have them fired not only in the private sector, but in any operational unit as well speaks volumes about DND's institutional understanding of the importance of strategic domestic communications to the defence of our country at home and abroad.

It's about time that the CF started treating Public Affairs as the front-line branch that it is: front-line on the information battle for the hearts and minds of the Canadian voter.

Update: Dave Perry, of Dalhousie's Canadian Naval Review, e-mailed me with a similar comment he wrote last fall (pdf - see "Answer the $%^&* Phone!"):

A few weeks later, I had occasion to discuss this with a long-serving naval officer, and thought to ask him if he had ever worked with public affairs. “No, I work for a living,” was his reply. This is symbolic of opinions frequently repeated elsewhere that Public Affairs is viewed with some disdain within the navy itself, and is certainly not viewed as a venue for career advancement.

Finally, I had occasion recently to call the naval Public Affairs office on a matter of mutual interest. I called three separate numbers, was greeted by three separate voicemails, and received one response, roughly 36 hours later. Now, taken on its own, this might only suggest that calls of little apparent importance are ignored so that the pressing inquiries of reporters can be answered with great swiftness. However, at a recent conference involving defence matters
in Nova Scotia, local newspapermen lamented the inability of naval Public Affairs officials to return phone calls in time to meet print deadlines. This is perhaps the most pressing issue – the bad press the navy receives should, one hopes, be the failure of the reporter in question to get the facts right, and not an inability on the part of said reporter to have an informed officer set them straight.

It's also instructive to read a PAffO's response (also pdf - "Maritime Miscommunications"), if only to note how thoroughly indoctrinated some within CF Public Affairs have become with their own perceived impotence.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, folks. And although it's not entirely the PA branch's fault, DND and the CF definitely have a problem with Public Affairs. In fact, Dave Perry's e-mail to me rings particularly true when he says:

In defence of the PA folks though, their side of things, from the ones I've talked to, is that it needs to be a Command issue, and not something devolved to Public Affairs. They shouldn't be blamed for following terrible communications decisions taken higher up the chain.

The entire organization needs to understand that public support is essential to the CF: not a single mission, domestic or foreign, that they undertake can be accomplished without it. Which means that they need to start taking both public affairs (their own interactions with the civilian world) and Public Affairs (the professionals within their organization) more seriously.

Hearts and minds, people. You can't succeed without Canadian hearts and minds.


Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...


And those of us who, from time to time, did "policy" at the feds had also to engage in "...protecting the minister and protecting your superiors..." In other words writing PR under the guise of advice.

The whole system is aimed at intellectual minimalism, if not dishonesty. That has been true under either governing party.

Just as an example--back to PR-- during the (first) Gulf War under the Mulroney government the guidance from PCO was aimed at minimizing any combat activities (very few) the CF might engage in. The rot has been there for a very long time.


8:06 p.m., May 14, 2007  

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