NOTES FOR REMARKS BY SENATOR JIM MUNSON TO GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATORS

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

 

Je suis très content de me trouver parmi un groupe de communicateurs.  Je me sens solidaire avec vous et le travail que vous faites.  Il est certain que travailler dans les communications au sein du gouvernement du Canada n’est pas une chose facile.

 

I tried to think how government communications was different from other communications.  It’s not.  Good communications is good communications.
But it’s also true that communications is one of those areas of work where you don’t always know that it’s good when it’s good, but when it’s bad, you certainly know it.  And you can bet that everyone else will know it too and inform you of the fact.

 

When you look at good communications – government or no government — it’s pretty simple: you have to get your message out and get your message understood.  It’s not rocket science.

 

But I think we can agree that in government getting your message out and getting it understood is no simple task.

 

Il y a plusieurs facteurs qui nous empêchent de bien faire notre travail.

 

First, communications are often considered as an after-thought to more important work.  Second, our experience and knowledge as communicators are not valued as they should be.  Third, we are subject to approval processes that can render our communication product irrelevant by the time it eventually goes out.  And finally, the many layers of changes we have to make sometimes mean we have a product that is either incomprehensible or so very abstract that it doesn’t strike a chord with the average Canadian.

 

Permit me to share what I imagine when I think a day in the life of your average every-day government communicator might be like.

 

There you are, in your cubicle, updating the department’s website while you’re waiting for the third round of edits and comments from senior staff on the employee newsletter, which, naturally, are overdue.

 

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the department, someone is developing a new program, initiative, strategy, whatever.  Really smart people – colleagues of yours – are working on it.

 

They are perhaps policy wonks with many extra letters following their names on their business cards.

 

Someone decides that this new program, initiative, strategy, whatever, is going to change the world and we need to let everyone know about it.

 

You get an e-mail inviting you to a meeting about the new program, initiative, strategy, whatever, and you’re told that you’re in charge of getting the message out.  “So-and-so from policy will give you the background material for a press release.”  So you happily abandon the website and the employee newsletter and get to work.

 

You write a snappy, one-page press release with active verbs and short sentences and send it up the line for approval.  You drum your fingers on your desk waiting for feedback looking anxiously at the calendar as the date for the launch of the new program, initiative, strategy, whatever starts to loom.  The translator has called twice asking for the text, but you stall for time waiting for approvals.

 

Finally it comes back to you and it is now two and a half pages long.
Your 20-word sentences have been extended and convoluted with semi-colons and commas.

Your short declarative sentences have been replaced with the passive voice and you don’t even understand some of the points that have been added.  But you don’t have time to follow up because the translator really needs the text and the Deputy Minister has to see it one more time before it goes to the Minister’s office.  Unfortunately, the DM is on a retreat and won’t be available until tomorrow morning.
At long last the press release goes out, but not until 5:00 pm the day before the launch of the program, initiative, strategy, whatever, and you happen to know that all the media are at the Martini Ranch where you would dearly love to be if only you didn’t have to get this darn press release out.

 

So then the event occurs and media don’t cover it and polling shows a week later that Canadians are completely unaware of any new program, initiative, strategy, whatever although 23% recall some kind of similar program that didn’t work five years ago and wonder why it’s being revived.

 

The Minister is angry.  Her Director of Communications is REALLY angry.  The annoyance at the top gets magnified as it works its way through the layers of Deputy, ADM, DG, and Director.  And guess who gets burned? You, of course!  It’s all of a sudden a “communications problem”.

 

Does any of this sound familiar?  I think it might.  For some reason, many organizations consider communications to be the equivalent of packaging at the end of an assembly line, something that is added on after all the serious work has been done.

Trop souvent, les communicateurs sont considérés comme des techniciens qui doivent arriver pour emballer un produit au lieu de contribuer à son développement.

 

Well, I can tell you that communications is serious work and to succeed, you have to be in on the development of the program, initiative, strategy, whatever.

 

Communications must be integrated into the core work of any organization.

 

Why is this?
Because good communications people are curious generalists who will ask the same questions regular citizens will ask when you are ready to roll out your program, initiative, strategy, whatever.  By knowing the answers to these questions ahead of time you will have a better program, initiative, strategy, whatever, and you will be ready for the public’s reaction when you roll it out.

 

Now this kind of inclusion works both ways.  Communications people also have to consult policy people.

 

They will act as a bridge between the media and the deepest and best source of information.

 

When I was in the former Prime Minister’s Office I was pleased at our success rate in getting our message out and I think one of the reasons was that I helped create a relationship – a comfort zone – between the media and the policy people at PMO.  If you bring a journalist into a room with an expert, you will build not only a relationship, but also trust between your organization – not just you – and the media.

 

After all, a good communications person facilitates and encourages everyone in the organization to communicate.
As you establish trust and credibility with the media, maybe, just maybe, your department may benefit from a balanced story. You will also strengthen your team by having knowledgeable people on hand who are comfortable in front of a tape recorder and a microphone.

 

So rule number one for good government communications:  Communications people need to be in the room when the policy work is going on.  La bonne communication est un travail d’équipe.

 

Now time is a huge factor when it comes to getting your message out and understood.

It is a fact in this business that a less than perfect message that goes out at the right time is better than the perfect message that gets out too late.

 

Too often in government, press releases, speeches, and backgrounders are subject to such a thorough review by every policy person in the shop plus the Directors, DGs, ADMs, their various and sundry assistants, and whoever else gets to see the text.

 

I’ve discovered that a common characteristic in government is the inability to read a text without a red pen.

 

No one seems capable of reading a text, checking the facts, and letting the communications people worry about the messaging.  Everyone is a wannabe communications expert who fiddles with the text until it is twice as long as it needs to be with way too many semi colons and commas.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I have the greatest respect for economists, political scientists, brain surgeons, artists, whoever, but I don’t tell them how to do their job, so when they try and tell me how to do my job, I listen respectfully and then ignore them

 

So, rule number 2 in government communications:  Trust the communications people and get out of their way.

 

Now I suppose I should say a few words about why I think people in government DO get in the way of good communications.  Actually I don’t need a few words.  One word will do to describe the phenomena:  fear.

 

Often in government we block good communications because we are afraid of the message.  As I said earlier, a good communicator is a curious generalist who will ask a lot of questions.

 

Then the good communicator will distill the information and simplify it so that it will be understood and remembered by the greatest number of people.  William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet said, “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”  Some people say it’s condescending to do that — that clear and simple messaging is “dumbing down the message”.  It’s not.

 

It’s called accessibility.  Just like ramps on curbs help people with wheelchairs to participate fully in society, simple, accessible messaging ensures that the greatest number of people get the message, not just the smart, educated ones who care about government of Canada policy.

And guess what?  Smart, educated people like clear, simple messages too.  We all deserve to be informed.

 

So rule number three of good communications:  Simple is good.  Don’t be afraid of clear, simple messages.  They are your friends.  If the simple message scares you or the policy people, it probably means that you have more work to do on the policy.  You need to go back to the board room and re-think your program, initiative, strategy, whatever.

 

Alors voilà.  Trois simples règles pour les bonnes communications.

Bien sûr, il y a d’autres règles, mais je veux suivre mes propres directives et laisser les choses simples.

 

So there you have it:  three rules for good communications:

 

get your communications and policy people in the same room

let communications people do their job

don’t be afraid of simplicity.

 

So what should you look for in a good communicator?  As I said, they are curious generalists.  They are usually optimistic people who like other people.

They enjoy being part of a team and are good listeners, respectful of the people you are trying to reach and the questions and concerns they might have.

 

They are good at building relationships within the organization and with the media.  Because of my experience as a journalist, when I was Director of Communications in Jean Chrétien’s Prime Minister’s Office, we ran the press office like a newsroom.  We worked at establishing good relationships with journalists.  This type of relationship not only makes our work more fun, but it also makes our job easier to do.

 

Too many people in government see the media as the enemy.  Don’t be afraid of the media.  They are doing their job just like you.  If you work with them and make their job easier with regular and timely updates and a professional demeanor, you will do much to help your organization.  This is especially true in the case of crisis communications.

 

Now that I am no longer a journalist, I have to confess that I wish I had known then what kind of power I wielded.  So many people in government see media as the adversary to be avoided or to be manipulated.  I had no idea.

 

Mais si vous suivez les trois règles simples, cela veut dire que tout le monde dans votre ministère va appuyer un simple message.  C’est un message clair et simple que tout le monde peut comprendre.

 

When you provide the media with a simple message that everyone in your department understands, your chances of getting accurate coverage increase.  Canadians will get the message and then, as my son Claude-Mathieu would say, “It’s all good.”

 

Now that I am in the Senate I have my own communications challenges to face.

Too many people, and I was one of them long ago, dismiss as irrelevant the work that Senators do.  What a mistake!

 

It will soon be two years that I’ve been in the Senate and I am continually impressed by the hard work and dedication of my colleagues here.  A word to the wise:  if you are briefing someone to appear before a Senate Committee, make sure they are well-prepared, because it is not a cake walk.

 

Senators bring to this Chamber a wealth of professional experience, as well as a commitment to ensuring that regional concerns are taken into account.

We are committed to playing our part in the parliamentary system and asking tough questions when we have to.  I haven’t seen a rubber stamp in the almost two years I’ve been here.

 

In addition to our legislative role, Senators take on issues and initiatives that are close to their hearts.  I know that for me, the last two years have been so rewarding because I have been able to work on behalf of children and sport, through SOS Children’s Villages, Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa, efforts to help families with children with autism, and as Ambassador for the Special Olympics.

In this work, I am able to combine my life passions with my experiences as a journalist and communicator to help make a difference.

 

The truth is that my career in communications has allowed me to travel the world and meet and work with leaders and other extraordinary individuals.  It’s the perfect profession for someone with curiosity: someone who likes people and isn’t afraid to care about them and tell a story they need, or want, to hear.  Because at the end of the day, that’s what our job is about, telling a story.

 

I do believe that communications makes a difference and that our work is under-valued by too many people.  As I said, communications is considered by many to be the packaging that is added at the end of the assembly line: superficial and expendable.  And that’s when things are going well.  If things go badly, well, all of a sudden a bad policy or a misstep by a leader becomes a “communications problem.”

 

That’s why, as a communicator, you have to fight to have your seat at the table, to be part of the design and development teams of the programs, initiatives, strategies, whatever.  And that’s why you have to care.

Good communications is about making a connection so that people care about, and become engaged in, the world around them.

 

And speaking of the world around you, what are the things that matter the most?  My message has been directed toward communications as a profession, but if we want to take communicating to a level that really matters, then let’s think of our own private world:  our families and friends.

 

This is where your special art of communications really begins.

 

Nous devons nous arrêter et employer nos habilités en tant que communicateurs pour quelque chose de plus important.  Nous devons penser à nos communautés, à nos voisins, et à nos familles.

 

The key here is to always give back to a society and a family which has been good to you.  Whether it is a charity, a child’s sport, a church group or that person you see on the street with no family.  Just listening is an extremely effective form of communication.

 

My philosophy is and always has been… if I helped one person with anything, once a day……… then that day was worth it.

 

For each and every one of us our daily personal challenge is to build and make our relationships stronger, to bring creativity and energy to our teams.  It’s about “being in the room.”

 

That’s much more than packaging, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s very important work.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.  Good luck and thank you for having me.

 

Merci tout le monde!  Au revoir et bonne chance!