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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.