Inside the government’s message-making machine

Denise Rudnicki

RudnickiNo reporter wants to be called a stenographer. There’s nothing
about that label that appeals to the journalistic imagination, which prefers the
image of political reporters as a motley crew of boat-rockers, banging through
the corridors of power with elbows up, asking pointed questions in the best
interests of the hapless citizen, and on guard against the wiles of
media-trained politicians. 

But the American academic who called reporters ‘stenographers to power’, Robert McChesney, was onto something when he wrote
that modern political reporting has degenerated, often to journalists simply
reporting what someone in one party says and then getting a reply from someone
on the other side of the aisle. Reporters may bristle
at the suggestion they are part of a steno pool but even they admit they spend
too much time covering what government decides is news.   

This goes way
beyond spin. This involves a sophisticated, government-wide, coordinated
communications apparatus, well-resourced and professionally staffed, and
designed to persuade people of the rightness of the government’s position by
marginalizing the views of opponents and by using the media to shape and manage
public discussion of policy. Calling this effort ‘spin’ is like calling a
tsunami a wave.

A few examples of how government communications work: A
reporter asks a minister a pretty good question at a news conference on the
Hill, and leaves reasonably satisfied with the quotes. For his part, the
minister is satisfied that once again, his department did not let him down and
provided every possible question and answer in his extensive briefing notes,
meaning not one question came as a surprise. A reporter calls a source in the
bureaucracy for a quote, hoping to get something other than the usual government
line. The source reads their answers from the key messages the department wrote
and circulated to every government source.  A reporter seeks out a
non-government source. The department already identified its supporters,
brought them into the communication plan and enlisted them to come out under
their own banner. A reporter calls an opponent to the government plan. The
department already briefed the minister on who the opponents are and what they
are doing, and long before the initiative was announced, began deconstructing
their arguments. A reporter calls a minister’s office for comment on an Access
to Information document. The department alerted the office to its imminent
release and provided background information and key messages to the minister and
their staff.  

Nothing is left to chance. Every government initiative,
no matter how small, comes with a communications plan. The plan analyses the
public opinion environment and the media relations strategy. It says who the
supporters and opponents are and outlines their activities.  t provides key
messages and identifies how the initiative can be coordinated with other
government plans. Extensive media monitoring means government can react quickly
to negative news, enlisting supporters, encouraging letter writing campaigns,
posting columns, targeting particular media – whatever it takes to maintain
control of the news.

It may be that reporters focus on politicians and
spin because there is an assumption that the public service – the people working
in the communications departments and writing the material – is neutral and
non-partisan.  What media may not yet grasp is that government communications
have been strategic for many years. This means they must serve the stated goals
of the government. The goals of the government are increasingly the goals of
the ruling party – particularly in a minority government situation – and that
has politicized the work of the public service. Public servants who work in
government communications may not like it but they are often enlisted in
partisan work.

As journalism faces the difficult task of reinventing
itself in the face of falling advertising revenues and dwindling audiences,
government is racing ahead and embracing new technologies as a way to advance
its publicity. The Prime Minister’s public activities are posted on Twitter.
Politicians have Facebook pages, they ‘podcast’ their news conferences,
speeches and announcements. The government increasingly goes over the heads of
journalists and delivers unmediated information directly to citizens.

People cannot get the information they need to make informed decisions
when governments are so successful at defining what is news and using media as a
delivery system for government publicity. However, rather than exposing the
efforts of government to manipulate the message, journalists should work to
understand better how government communicates – all the tools in the very
expensive tool kit – so that they are better equipped to challenge the
government’s definition of news, to seek out alternative sources, and to
determine how the work of government communications should factor in their
coverage of politics.

This is a hugely uneven playing field.
Groups that are opposed to any government initiative are under-resourced by
comparison. They do not have 15-page communications plans, a communications
branch to unify their message and media-train their spokespeople; they do not
have the ability to conduct focus groups, do advertising, and rely on the advice
of professional communicators to win the public relations war. 

Journalists are
equally disadvantaged. Thousands of people work in government communications and
millions of dollars are spent at the same time newsrooms are shrinking and fewer
journalists are being asked to do more with less. Journalists will never be
able to level the field but understanding the game will allow them to analyse it
more effectively for the benefit of their readers, viewers and

CAJDenise Rudnicki is leading a workshop called “Stenographers to power: What government communications are doing to the media” at the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) annual conference in Vancouver May 22-24. For more information and to register visit the CAJ website. Next week freelance reporter Tom Hawthorn will preview his CAJ conference workshop in an Ask a Mentor column on making run-of-the-mill story assignments exciting. 

Rudnicki is a writer and university lecturer. She was a national affairs
correspondent, host, producer and reporter for both CBC Radio and TV in
newsrooms across Canada and has served as director of communications for the
federal minister of justice. She studies how governments tell media what the
story is, how to cover it and what sources to use.