Say It Ain’t So, Joe! The Unborn Child that Upended the Budget Message

There is no single project in a government’s year more important than a budget.

Economists and policy-makers slave for months to craft the tax and spend measures, constantly adjusting for the unexpected—see this year’s plunging oil price.  

Political operatives burn the midnight oil, sweating and massaging the details of how it will play into the governing party’s re-election plans.

Communications experts craft a strategy that usually involves carefully staged leaks, advance announcements of key policies and a budget day rollout that centres on the finance minister’s ability to not only deliver the speech, but to answer probing questions in a rotating round of media interviews.

Hundreds of people are involved, from the prime minister on down to the food service people who serve lunch to reporters in the lockup.

 This year the document’s importance is magnified by the impending election. It is the Conservatives’ central campaign plank.

 All of the painstaking planning can go off the rails with one misguided turn of phrase.

So it was when Finance Minister Joe Oliver answered a question on Amanda Lang’s CBC News Network program about the long-term fiscal consequences of the increased contribution limit on the Tax Free Spending Account. His answer likely caused a sudden outbreak of slack jaw in a host of Tory communications aides:

 “I heard that by 2080 we may have a problem. Well, why don’t we leave that to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s granddaughter to solve that problem.”

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Alarm bells sounded in the opposition ranks. Here was something they could work with.

 Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair was ready with a response the next time he was in front of a camera:

 “I don’t want to leave problems of sustainability on the backs of future generations. I have a granddaughter, and I don’t want her to be responsible for picking up the mess that the Conservatives are intentionally leaving.”

 Liberal Justin Trudeau’s top advisor, Gerald Butts, pounced on social media:

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Joe Oliver is a man of much accomplishment, both in private life and in politics. But communicating the message is not among his strengths.

 During his days as Natural Resources Minister he spent some time in Europe, lobbying the EU in an attempt to head off a proposal to declare oil sands crude as dirtier than the rest.   When he passed through London he met me and a handful of Canadian reporters at Canada House to speak about his progress.

 I threw him a zinger:

 “Who do you suppose Europeans are more likely to listen to, you or Al Gore?”

 He was flummoxed for a moment before responding weakly that he did not recall Mr. Gore’s name being raised.

 Some public figures are better at responding to tough questions than others. But all need preparation and practice to hone their message and to avoid the unguarded moment of loose lips.

 Perhaps the most famous verbal misstep of recent times came from Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, during the infamous Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010. At the height of the crisis, he attempted to apologize but sadly for him and BP added a few extra words:

 “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

 TV reports would use the clip and then cut immediately to scenes of oily water with words like “life here may never be the same again.”

 In my media training course I focus on the need for not only preparation of key messages but also anticipation of reporters’ questions. I put clients in front of the camera and subject them to the same kind of zingers that I put to Joe Oliver in London.

Human beings can still make mistakes under pressure but expert guidance and real-life simulations can limit the possibility of the unguarded word or phrase that upends a carefully crafted communications strategy.