From 'good' stories to 'no comment,' foreign affairs ready
By Fabian Dawson, The Province: Thursday, December 9, 1999
Spin doctors in Ottawa have prepared an extensive communications strategy to save the department of foreign affairs from "embarrassment" caused by claims of diplomats living the high life.
The strategy was developed to counter the negative publicity surrounding the housing of overseas staff at Canadian diplomatic missions, documents obtained by The Province show.
Admitting that some parts of the allegations by department employee, Joanna Gualtieri have been found to be true, the backgrounder to the strategy paper reads ". . . the evidence may be quite embarrassing to the department since it concerns what these employees have portrayed as a gross neglect and mismanagement of taxpayer money in the selection of accommodation for employees abroad".
Two federal bureaucrats familiar with government communications said the strategy outline, prepared late last year, would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to prepare.
Using surveys to predict public response to the issue, one of the draft documents for the strategy admits that even if the department of foreign affairs and international trade presents extremely positive evidence about its own decisions in this case, the public may not trust the defence.
Among other things, the communications strategy suggests:
- Targeting specific journalists to dispel myths about diplomats living the high life.
- Seizing opportunities to communicate good news stories about spending on diplomacy.
- Bringing attention to the opening of single-person diplomatic missions to exhibit low-cost postings.
- Hiring a writer and photographer to interview civil servants abroad to show the challenges and living conditions in the chance a national newspaper may pick it up and help temper public misconceptions.
- Preparing a list of answers for ministers and department bureaucrats in the event of media scrums. The list of responses several times suggests the widely used "we cannot comment because the case is before the courts."
- Providing low-key responses to the media which entails the department's media relations office answering questions "superficially" using prepared responses and refusing access to staff who are directly involved.
The communications strategy also prepared an extensive question-and-answer brief for the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, in the event the opposition Reform Party raised the issue in the House of Commons. Axworthy has not had the chance to use it yet.
Copyright The Vancouver Province 1999