Scientists, Unmuzzled

The communications policy for EC brought in under the Harper regime is no longer in effect.

When we first heard on 6 November 2015 that scientists at Environment Canada (EC) and Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) had been unmuzzled, I was at once both elated and concerned. Freeing federal scientists from the shackles of the Harper regime was one of the promises of the new federal government. But could they really make good on that promise so quickly? It is one thing to say that scientists are unmuzzled, and quite another to dismantle the policies (e.g., the EC media protocol) that allowed it. Furthermore, if those policies remained in place, then any scientist who spoke without authorization could end up in a pile of trouble.

Environment Canada’s Media Relations Policy, as developed during the Harper years, is no longer in effect.
Environment Canada’s Media Relations Policy, as developed during the Harper years, is no longer in effect.

To clarify on the issue, I emailed Max Guénette, the Director General of Communications at Environment and Climate Change Canada (EC’s new full name). I asked for both a copy EC’s media relations policy under the Harper regime, and whether or not it continued to be in effect. On 16 December 2015 he wrote

“The protocol has ceased to be in effect as of November 6, 2015, the date at which the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development issued his statement on communicating science. The policy remains under review at this time.”

Mark Johnson, a spokesperson from EC Media Relations, sent me the old policy, and confirmed

“the Media Relations Policy… is no longer in effect.”

Promise fulfilled.

Details

Mr. Guénette provided me this background on the defunct policy:

“It was introduced by one of my predecessors at Environment Canada as a means of providing clarity to both communications staff and departmental spokespersons with regard to the processes and principles to be adhered to in responding to queries from members of the media.”

Since the policy is no longer in effect, it would appear that the communications policy of the Government of Canada (GoC) is now the guiding document (link sent to me by Julie Bertrand from EC’s Public Inquiries Centre on 30 November 2015).

The introduction of the GoC communications policy by the Harper regime on 1 August 2006 led departments to rewrite their own policies. A comparison of the GoC and EC policy documents is revealing.

Primary Spokesperson

The GoC’s policy stipulates in Section 20 that

“Ministers are the principal spokespersons of the Government of Canada.”

It goes on to say

“Ministers present and explain government policies, priorities and decisions to the public. Institutions, leaving political matters to the exclusive domain of ministers and their offices, focus their communication activities on issues and matters pertaining to the policies, programs, services and initiatives they administer.

Notice that there is a division of responsibilities between the Minister and their Department. Ministers are to speak to politcal matters, while departments may communicate about technical matters (including science).

EC’s own policy allows no such division. It says

“As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, the Minister of the Environment is the government’s principal advocate and spokesperson on environmental matters both within Cabinet and externally.

As the government’s principal spokesperson for Environment Canada, the Minister is responsible for informing the public about Environment Canada priorities, policies, programs and initiatives.

In this document, the Minister is responsible for communicating everything. It is entirely inconsistent with the GoC policy, and set the stage for muzzling at EC.

Media Requests

The GoC’s communications policy has this to say about media requests in Section 19:

“Institutions must facilitate information or interview requests from the media, and manage plans and strategies for communicating with the media.”

and

“Institutions must ensure processes and procedures are in place to assist managers and employees in responding to media calls. Communication specialists responsible for media relations ensure that media requests, particularly for interviews or technical information on specialized subjects, are directed to knowledgeable managers or staff designated to speak as official representatives of their institution.”

EC’s policy again took it much further:

“All staff, including subject matter experts, should refer all media calls to Headquarters Media Relations at (819) 934-8008 or media@ec.gc.ca. Please alert Media Relations of the nature of the call so that they are able to follow-up on the request.

We ask that you do not speak to the reporter until given the go-ahead from a Media Relations Officer, in order to ensure the call is properly coordinated."

The doc goes on to say that

“While the Minister of the Environment is the principal spokesperson for the department, Media Relations Officers often serve as the “first line of contact” for the media into the department, and often speak for the department.”

Rather than facilitate, EC’s Media Relations was directed to take complete control of the process. This is the mechanism by which muzzling was implemented.

Managing the Message

The GoC’s communications policy has this to say about media training (Section 20):

“Officials designated to speak on an institution’s behalf, including technical or subject-matter experts, must receive instruction, particularly in media relations, to carry out their responsibilities effectively and to ensure the requirements of their institution and this policy are met.”

Media training is a good thing. Public communications can be very challenging.

EC’s document, however, again goes too far:

“Media Relations provides strategic advice and coaching to subject matter experts in preparation for the event. An explanation is provided on who will attend the briefing, what type of questions can be expected and how to address the proposed answers, highlighting key messages and areas of probable interest. Subject matter experts are also provided with an overview of how the briefing will unfold and, if required, with a mock simulation of the event.”

This does not describe training. This is telling scientists what to say.

Conclusions

EC’s communications policy under the Harper regime was not at all consistent with the GoC’s policy, and established the pretext and infrastructure for the muzzling of scientists. The new federal government was right to strike it down as one of its first acts.