October 24th, 2013
This has been an incredibly dramatic week in Canadian politics, with way more theatre than most of us get in an average year. A tangled set of conflicting narratives is in play in Ottawa, as the Senate confronts its own history and spending practises, many of them bad. But here at home one political party is actively imploding. Through a series of missteps and bad counter movements, the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP is effectively undermining its own integrity, credibility, and sensibility. It’s a train wreck, all right, one squarely engineered by its own members.
I don’t want to spend my blog space judging those particular members or hammering another nail in their coffin. I do want to muse about lessons learned, however, and what the whole sordid and embarrassing episode teaches us about communications—a subject any dean or person in a leadership position must master.
It all began when four people who comprise a party caucus, four elected members of the Legislature, agreed to sign on to a letter addressed to their leader. The letter, in plain and unambiguous English, requested a leadership convention—in other words, a request that the current leader be replaced. They drafted and agreed to the content and pressed send. An email, no less. Not a registered letter or hand-delivered letter: an email.
Lesson One: if you have something unpleasant to say, say it to her face. Have we not all learned just how treacherous emails can be? Emails take down dynasties. They have become the DNA of criminal cases. They are evidence, paradoxically hard evidence, since most of us consider them to be so ephemeral, fleeting, and often trivial. Could there be anything more insulting than an email attachment informing you that your services are no longer required? Could there be anything more dumb than using the one medium capable not only of offending but also of being traced, of serving as proof of communication, and in turn being easily reproduced and disseminated? Can it get more impersonal?
And so the leader herself, after receiving the aforementioned email, agreed to go on the public broadcaster, during prime time news, and reveal the contents of the email, while openly displaying her sense of betrayal and victimization. Ouch. You could practically hear the saliva forming in the mouths of newsroom reporters. There hasn’t been anything this juicy in these parts since Premier Danny Williams told the Prime Minister where to shove his federal agenda. Didn’t your mother always tell you not to act in anger? To wait it out and reply to slights and offense when you were in a reasonable state of mind? But, no, in this case, the leader, in no mood for patience and rationality, decided to air all the dirty linen in public, fighting dirt with dirt. It was an extraordinary spectacle, at once embarrassing and sad.
Lesson Two: avoid the media at all costs when you are angry. Do not under any circumstances go public with news that will damage your cause. The media is a large maw, hungry and keen to expose and devour the weak.
Things have not ended there. At least two members of the caucus started back pedaling furiously, in one case apologizing publically and in the other openly weeping in self-abnegation, all while pointing a finger at an alleged instigator among them. So it is that the alleged instigator was compelled to defend his own integrity and call into question the very intelligence, not to mention the will, of the others who were now saying that really did not mean what the email attachment said.
Lesson Three: in the face of hard evidence, do not back track, do not point fingers, do not blame the other for your own mistakes. It looks and smells insincere, even cowardly. Adults must take responsibility for their actions, not claim ignorance or weakness.
And so, finally, after only two days of very public finger pointing, recrimination, revisionist history, and other forms of truthiness, the caucus and leader have decided not to talk to the media at all. Too late, children. You have violated just about every fundamental law of communications, ignored all the best practices manuals and all the 101 lit on press relations, and you have displayed a tragic lack of judgment. The winners in all this: the media, surely. The spectacle was hand delivered to them, ready-made. The governing party is probably feeling pretty triumphant, too. The losers: clearly the NDP itself, and all of those who have supported them through the years.
The success of any political party or organization depends on the successful control of their own stories—that’s communications. Woe to those who act in haste and in anger. Woe to those who fail to understand how all things are mediated. Woe to those who press send.