Alberta Politics
Notley Government press secretaries as they may soon appear hard at work in their new newsroom-style office (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Inside baseball: The ‘newsroom’ returns to Alberta, sort of, in government press secretary office consolidation

Posted on September 28, 2018, 1:28 am
10 mins

In one way, the Alberta NDP Government’s reorganization of its political communications staff is pure inside baseball.

It’s interesting just the same, because it undoubtedly reflects the declining importance of mainstream media as an election campaign battlefield in this province, not to mention the structure of corporate news departments as they have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cope with disruptive technological change that has blown the former “news industry’s” business models to smithereens.

Premier Notley’s Communications Director, Cheryl Oates (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

According to mainstream media coverage, the changes in ministerial media-relations services amount to a “reshuffle,” or a “rejig.” Well, sort of, but I’d call it more of a change of address.

Right now, each minister has a press secretary, usually a former journalist who is supposedly responsible for shaping the minister’s messaging and managing his or her encounters with the media. In the past, a minister’s press secretary has usually been housed nearby, the better to keep the minister out of media hot water.

Back in the day in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada, ministers in governments of all stripes had a certain amount of autonomy, and one of the perks of that power in many places was the ability to pick their own press secretary. The successful candidate was usually a journo with whom the minister had had a long, happy and appropriately leaky business relationship.

Corey Hogan, the Alberta Government’s Managing Director of Communications and Public Engagement (Photo: Dave Cournoyer).

No more. It’s a trend, and not just in Alberta, for press secretaries increasingly to be creatures of the first minister’s office, a system in which mere ministers may not even have any say in who gets to be their media spokesperson.

That’s the way it’s been operating for a while in Alberta, with the NDP Government’s ministerial press secretaries reporting to directly to the Premier’s Communications Director, Cheryl Oates.

In a sense, this latest reorganization will just entrench that reporting relationship – moving all the press secretaries away from the ministers they supposedly advise into a single room with, as Ms. Oates told me in an email earlier this week, “an increased capacity to help one another when there is a demand for it.” You know, like during an election campaign.

There’s a name for this kind of setup, one could argue: It’s a newsroom.

Back in the day, when newspapers were still a thing, that’s what we used to call the big open room where all the reporters, editors, columnists and copy runners worked together to gather all the day’s news into a coherent package and get it all into print in time for the readers to sit down at breakfast and read it over coffee. (Actually, the first newspaper your blogger ever worked for published in the afternoon, a sensible idea that has been all but lost in the mists of time.)

Nowadays, of course, the business model that made newsrooms with 200 people in them possible is irrevocably broken – by roughly equal portions of dumb management and the Internet. Perhaps on a busy day when everyone’s Tweeting nastily about the government, though, the new single press secretaries’ office will recapture the mood of that bygone golden era.

Is it dangerous not to have a minder at hand to keep ministerial messaging on the straight and narrow? Not a few people have wondered about that, but the truth is it’s probably less necessary now than ever before. We live in an era when the idea of ministerial responsibility has gone the way of ministerial autonomy, and when mainstream media other than the CBC can barely bother to staff the Legislative Press Gallery.

Is anybody there? On many days at the Legislature, the answer is no. This means fewer opportunities for ministers to get in trouble, even if their minder isn’t right next door.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Photo: david J. Climenhaga).

At the same time, the change parallels the organization of those news media operations still functioning: fewer journalists, less topical expertise, and decreasing responsibility.

This change at the political level also reflects similar changes on the civil service side in Alberta.

Ralph Klein’s thoroughly politicized Public Affairs Bureau – which was said to employ more people than the political staff at the White House in Washington in those days – gave way during Alison Redford’s time as premier to a more professional department staffed by civil servants. It was the Redford Government that quite properly split the political and civil service communications roles and brought in politically appointed press secretaries.

In the summer of 2017, the NDP consolidated all remaining civil service communications and marketing departments, in other words what was left of the PAB, as a “corporate service” found on the government’s organizational chart as a division of the Ministry of Treasury Board and Finance. The unit was renamed Communications and Public Engagement.

Oil and gas executive Chris Slubicki (Photo: Modern Resources Inc.).

That placed civil service communications firmly within the tradition of a professional civil service, clearly not designed to play a partisan political role.

Former CBC political commentator Corey Hogan was put in charge, explaining at the time that “our approach now will be to pool functions such as design, A/V, web and consultation, treating them as a corporate resource. This will mean better utilization and less reliance on outside vendors.”

This sounds quite a lot like what Ms. Oates is now saying about communications on the political side.

It probably won’t hurt that a press secretary with responsibilities for one ministry knows what the other ones are up to.

On the other hand, as in the news business, as specialists are replaced with generalists with far less authority – not even possessing their own email address for media to contact them individually – the appeal of the job to bright and ambitious people is bound to decline.

Next month, Ms. Oates says, she’ll likely tell us who will be responsible for which ministry. Don’t expect big changes. Less than a quarter of a million dollars will be saved, but you’ll only have to memorize one email address.

Premier crashes environmentalist’s party with teachers

Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Is Tzeporah Berman now the most dangerous person in Western Canada? So it might seem.

The Vancouver-based environmentalist and pipeline opponent certainly appears to have been deemed too dangerous to be allowed to speak to Alberta teachers on her own.

Since word of Ms. Berman’s speaking date with the ATA’s fall conference for social studies, Indigenous education, and environmental teachers next month prompted a province-wide brouhaha, the teachers’ association has received a call from the Premier’s Office asking for Rachel Notley to be invited too so she can counteract any “misinformation” Ms. Berman may convey.

Well, you can’t say no to the premier, so the ATA agreed to the late addition to its speakers’ roster.

Premier Notley will be accompanied by Chris Slubicki, CEO of Modern Resources Inc., a Calgary-based oil and gas exploration and production corporation.

10 Comments to: Inside baseball: The ‘newsroom’ returns to Alberta, sort of, in government press secretary office consolidation

  1. Geoffrey Pounder

    September 28th, 2018

    Notley’s own spin on pipelines and the oil industry is dizzying:

    • Ask Notley how she reconciles rising oilsands emissions with Canada’s climate change plan.
    • Ask Notley how she can still call herself “progressive” when she knows that climate change disproportionately affects women and children, and the global poor.
    • Ask Notley why the AB govt earns more from gaming and alcohol sales than it does from bitumen royalties.
    • Ask Notley when her govt is going to start reporting emissions accurately. One study after another reports that AB’s oil & gas emissions are grossly under-reported.
    • If AB’s emissions stats are fictional, so is AB’s temporary oilsands emissions cap. Ask Notley to tally oilsands emissions including projects that are under construction, have received approval, or are seeking approval. The total “blows well past” Notley’s fraudulent cap. (The Pembina Institute)
    • Ask Notley to unravel the logical contradiction of demanding new pipelines in exchange for a small carbon tax.
    • Ask Notley why she gave the oil & gas industry a five-year carbon tax holiday when Martha and Henry still have to pay.
    • Ask Notley how pulling support for a national “floor price” on carbon after the Federal Court ruling against TMX improves AB’s credibility on climate.
    • In 2016 Canada agreed to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): “We are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification. We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.” Ask Notley how she reconciles her push for pipelines with UNDRIP, which stipulates free, prior, and informed consent.
    • Ask Notley about her plans to save endangered orcas.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      September 29th, 2018

      “Ask Notley why the AB govt earns more from gaming and alcohol sales than it does from bitumen royalties.”

      Geoffrey, that one is a stunner. Do you have a source where I could confirm it?

      Reply
  2. Geoffrey Pounder

    September 28th, 2018

    Pop quiz for Premier Notley:

    • When does she plan to launch an independent comprehensive health study into rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan, as residents, scientists, and medical professionals have requested for years?
    • Is she prepared to run out the clock on endangered caribou in northern AB?
    • How many permanent jobs TMX will create in BC and AB? How many jobs are at risk in the event of a tanker spill?
    • List the names and addresses of all the Asian refineries lining up to buy AB dilbit. How much more are they willing to pay than U.S. refineries?
    • Estimate the impact of IMO 2020 rules on prices for AB’s sour heavy crude. Does she agree with her own govt’s assessment that “the light heavy differential is forecast to remain wide as new rules on the sulphur content of marine fuels from the International Maritime Organization go into effect”?

    Reply
    • Bill Malcolm

      September 28th, 2018

      Now that, sir, is a fine list of questions. I have a feeling that if anyone had the temerity to pose them in their entirety to the premier, they would receive a severe tongue-lashing rather than answers. There seems to be a logical phase reversal of unknown origin infecting the logic Ms Notley propounds. It’s all rather sad, really. Here we are as a species, tottering rapidly to climate doom, and all our pols can do is pretend it’s 1952 and it’s tally ho, full speed ahead into the abyss.

      No, there are no extra larger forest fires or tornados in Ottawa that have anything to do with digging up dem tarsands, the CO2 going past 400 ppm in our air and ‘sides, we need the jobs, and by golly if we don’t get them we won’t have enough money to put real anti-pollution measures into place because royalties are next-to-nothing so we need to move big volume to earn our daily crust and convince “investors” to dig up even more, and what do BC ocean oil spills have to do with us they should let us ship across their land and get out of our way same as First Nations Pause for breath and no rumination or self-reflection whatsoever – we need to win the next election and if I don’t get my way, I shall stamp my foot and act the absolute vituperative fool by not co-operating with anyone on carbon and putting in trade barriers and yes I used to be a social democrat with principles but times are tough, blah, blah, blah, blah.

      A pox on these idiots’ houses. The next bunch of twits to come along are bound to even accelerate the desecration because they are deaf, dumb and blind to reality and don’t even think they’re lying – they believe in god or something. So Alberta and Canada are acting to shoot our collective selves in the foot and cheer about it! Like Ontarians voting in Smuggie Ford or America Trump. Hey, things are great and just peachy keen. May as well eat drink and be merry and to heck with the future.

      Reply
  3. Eoin Kenny

    September 28th, 2018

    Back in the day in Alberta… Everything old is apparently new again. The notion of a press secretary for each minister operating independently of departmental communications staff was brought to Alberta by Princess Allison Dreadful and her merry band of refugees from Harper’s Ottawa. Prior to that, each department had a comms shop led by a experienced director who seamlessly handled comms for the minister and the department. They were overseen by the Public Affairs Bureau which handled Premier’s communications and set the overall tone and feel for comms on a government-wide basis by, er “pool(ing) functions such as design, A/V, web and consultation, treating them as a corporate resource.” Despite all the “Ministry of Truth” jabs from virtually every media outlet in the province, I met very few overt partisans during my 15 years as a PAB staffer. There were obviously some, hard to avoid in a province that had voted Conservative for more than 40 years. I sure as hell didn’t support the PCs politically.

    Every government everywhere in the world has a communications function that is necessary to inform people of the programs and services available to them – and the rationale behind government decisions. That that was the focus of me and my colleagues. While the media loved to describe use the PAB as a pro-Conservative propaganda machine, it was anything but until Redford and the hyper-partisan harperCON creeps she surrounded herself with started to dismantle it. If anything, comms became even more “thoroughly politicized” under Notley who also imported a vast array of non-Albertan party apparatchiks – including members of the failed coup against Manitoba premier Greg Selinger. Those come-from-away zealots just assumed all Alberta public servants were little more than Klein clones who could not be trusted to carry the government’s message. A lot of good, apolitical communications staff were sidelined as a result and many were ultimately forced out or retired.

    It may not sit well with the chattering classes, but this latest reorganization proves that if the PAB did not exist, it would have to be created.

    Reply
  4. ronmac

    September 28th, 2018

    With Rachel Notley showing up at the ATA convention to “counteract any misinformation”, we can now add “ideological enforcer” to the list of official duties of the Premier’s office.

    Reply
  5. Farmer Brian

    September 29th, 2018

    Again it is certainly interesting how one’s political leaning changes how you perceive a certain event. When I heard that Rachel Notley was going to the ATA convention to essentially counter Tzeporah Berman’s anti pipeline message I laughed. My first thought was here is Premier Notley, someone who used to go to anti-pipeline rally’s, leads a party that was historically anti pipeline, has members of her caucus like David Eggen and Shannon Phillips who were on record in the past opposing new O&G developement, she is going to counter Tzeporah? Yet people like Geoffrey and Bill see it completely differently. I do have a few questions for Geoffrey, if oil use is being curtailed and the demand for it declining as Tzeporah would have us believe why do most experts predict we are going to return to $100 USD Brent crude in the near future? At present we ship 200000 barrels of oil to the coast a day by train, I read the other day that Cenovus just inked a 3 year deal to ship 100000 bpd of oil to the U.S. Gulf coast by rail, doesn’t this show there is demand for our oil? Wouldn’t it be safer and more efficient to ship this oil in a pipeline? Anyway, our Premier has certainly turned her back on the environmental side of the party and is trying to appeal to those in middle, will she be successful only time will tell. Enjoy your day

    Reply
    • Geoffrey Pounder

      September 30th, 2018

      As far as I know, oil use and energy consumption are rising, not falling. That will change only when politicians and govts put a real price on pollution, price energy properly, and remove all energy subsidies. As long as producers and consumers externalize health and environmental costs, artificially cheap oil will continue to be the preferred option.
      The best customer for AB oil will continue to be U.S. refineries. Notley et al. have yet to provide evidence of a lucrative Asian market.

      New pipelines do not spell the end of oil by rail. It’s “both and”, not “either or”. Pipeline spills are typically far larger than rail spills. When spills go undetected or alarms are ignored, pipelines can leak for days.

      Notley’s kowtowing to the oil industry will avail her nothing in the next election. There is no evidence that flogging pipelines, etc. will lead to NDP election victory in 2019.
      Mathematically, it is impossible for the NDP to prevail against a united conservative party. Even the NDP’s unprecedented 2015 numbers would not yield such a result. (Combining PC and WRP votes in 2015 yields 60 seats for the UCP to 25 for the NDP.)
      “Conservatives” who did not vote NDP in 2015 won’t vote NDP in 2019 even if Notley built a billion pipelines.
      For long-time NDP supporters, the issue is whether to endorse or repudiate Notley’s version of the NDP – and demand better from a future NDP.

      Reply
  6. Jerrymacgp

    September 29th, 2018

    Some of the blame for the rigid message discipline that has been ruthlessly inculcated into virtually every elected government and opposition caucus of every stripe in the democratic world, both at the national and sub-national levels, can be laid at the field of political journalists and pundits, who jump on every narrow glimmer of light between a Cabinet-level Minister or shadow Cabinet Critic, or backbencher, and his or her party Leader on each and every policy issue. We do not want our political parties to be monolithic groupthink factories, and yet every difference of opinion is questioned incessantly as though party unity were fracturing like the Arctic ice cap.

    If the media allowed party caucuses to hold divergent views on some issues, especially when on a matter of degree, priority or implementation details, rather than on a fundamental principle, maybe there wouldn’t need to be such a tight centralized grip on messaging.

    Reply

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