It seems that every day in the past year we hear about government scandals in Canada. It is happening at all levels of government. Many citizens are starting to wonder what is going on. We have had F35 Fighter Jet Scandal, CFIA Scandal (tainted meat), Canadian Senate expenses scandal and the list goes on. I don’t plan to focus on the scandals themselves but look at it from a communications marketing perspective.
How do communications and marketing functions operate when every day the government they serve is under intense scrutiny?
I had the opportunity to work in the federal government during the sponsorship scandal which was a scandal dealing with the misuse of marketing and communications in the federal government
Throughout 2005, the interest of Parliament, the media, and the nation was held by the Gomery Inquiry into what became known as the “sponsorship scandal.”
Under intensifying media coverage and in tandem with two critical reports from the Auditor General, the program slowly evolved into one of the most prominent and extensive political scandals Canada has known.
The program’s tentacles reached as high as the Prime Minister’s Office and included the Liberal Party, two former prime ministers, ministers of the Crown, Québec advertising agencies. While under investigation by the Gomery Commission, the program was the subject of an RCMP inquiry and criminal prosecutions for fraud.
As Kirstin Kozolanka points out in her article , The Sponsorship Scandal as Communications: The Rise of Politicized and Strategic Communications in the Federal Government, the public and media focus was concentrated on the partisan political side of the the scandal. However, it masked a more ominous dimension: the increasingly strategic role of communications in government.
The sponsorship program began as a communications activity, one of many promotional activities that developed in government throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The sponsorship program is emblematic of the kind of excessive self-promotional activities that have entered into the communications operations of government. The program was part of a development in government communications that had politicized public employees and public policy making as an extension of partisan interests – in this case, in the interest of a particular conception of national unity.
As Kirsten Kozolanka points out, the shifts in the policy making environment, media systems and practice, and political culture fostered the conditions under which the sponsorship program operated. These shifts emphasize and contributed to an intensification of a strategic role for government communications in structuring public understanding and approval for the government.
The application of strategic communications has shifted focus from substance to image, from information to promotion, and from policy to communications. While it is legitimate for governments to communicate with citizens and it is not unusual for them to want to persuade those citizens, the question becomes when and where to draw the line.
Now an independent public service can accommodate modern marketing techniques if it has the checks and balances. Health Canada, for instance, had a well-functioning social marketing program for public health promotion campaigns for many years. But after Gomery, a decision was made to centralize all of the advertising money in each department into the Privy Council Office which led to a politicization of advertising (see blogs written on the economic action plan: http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/02/18/canadians-weary-of-economic-action-plan-ads/ and http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/07/24/why-would-you-run-a-government-ad-campaign-that-is-a-bust/ )
Communications and marketing at all levels of government has become embedded in the structure of government; and the communications work environment has become more politicized by centralized operations and direction; Strategic communications and this would include marketing relies on embedding communications and marketing activities into the structures of the public service, thus institutionalizing it, and then consolidating it within centralized functions.
Therefore when scandal hits the government, communications and marketing people in today’s public service communicators tend to become involved in assisting in the defense of the government. They are left with little choice as the whole communications and marketing function have become, in the past decade, an integral part of the government and has become politicized.
For example, the government has come under fire for spending tens of millions of dollars on various marketing campaigns touting its economic policies as well as some that allege it is “protecting the environment” and promoting “responsible” development of natural resources. Public accounts documents recently tabled in Parliament reported at least $50 million in advertising by various departments over the past year, not including a new proposed $24-million campaign over two years for international marketing and public relations efforts to promote Canadian oil companies operating in the oil sands region of western Canada. Source:
Partisan political advertising masquerading as vital government information or public service was not invented by the Conservative government. The Liberals did the same thing in their time, but since 2006, the Conservative government has taken the practice to new heights.
On radio and television, in newspapers and online, the government is using advertising to tell Canadians what a wonderful job their government is doing, blurring the line between partisan commercials and genuine public service advertising.
Where will it end, who knows?
Let know what you think.