Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Raitt gives Canadians something to talk about

Truth be told, I feel some degree sympathy for Jasmine MacDonnell. In case you haven't heard of her, she was the communications director for Canada's Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt. I use the past tense because MacDonnell has lost her job after leaving secret files at a TV studio, and misplacing a voice recorder containing a conversation between her and the Minister in the press gallery in Ottawa. Even so, it's understandable that resigned - willingly or with encouragement - last week. Two instances of misplacement involving potentially damaging material and it's hard to see what else she could have done.

What surprised me, as the story began breaking last week, was that MacDonnell is only 26. Given that she must have, at best, four to five years of experience, what were her qualifications to be communications director for a federal minister? Generally, communications directors, particularly for politicos, have a bit more snow on the roof, a few more miles on the road than MacDonnell, right?

Uneducated assumptions aside, MacDonnell was back in the news this week. She went to court with lawyers trying to prevent the Chronicle Herald newspaper from reporting on the contents of the recording left at the press gallery. The bid failed. The resulting article has created more than a few headaches for Raitt. In the recording, she apparently refers to a leak at a nuclear reactor that resulted in a shortage of medical isotopes as 'sexy' and airs her concerns about the ability of federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to do her job. Naturally, the story - and Raitt's comments - have been all over the media today, with a lot of political and public tut-tutting and pooh-poohing.

Allegedly, the conversation between Raitt and MacDonnell was recorded inadvertently, and you have to figure that Raitt assumed her thoughts on the matter were private. But here's the thing. Once you express your thoughts to anyone, there is always the risk they will become public, regardless of circumstances or your expectations of confidentiality. You'd think Raitt, being a public figure, would be well aware of the pitfalls of talking casually, even with close advisers. But she's not the only one to find out that words have a way of travelling beyond a trusted confidant or boardroom.

Raitt's experience is a timely reminder that you should always give due consideration to the message you want to communicate. What is it you are about to say, how will you say it, who will hear it and how will they react? Even if it's a private conversation, imagine what would happen if what you want to say became public. How would your colleagues, the media and consumers interpret it. In essence, choose your words carefully because you never know who is listening. Otherwise, you wind up with attention and scrutiny you don't need.

Speaking of which, you also have to be strategic in whether you try to quash a story such as this. Sometimes, efforts to suppress media coverage create the perception that there's something more to the story than meets the eye - even that you have something you want to hide. Journalists will probe further, potentially uncovering other vulnerabilities about you or your organization that would not have otherwise surfaced. Or, the story garners more coverage, interest and outrage all aimed at you - unwanted and negative attention that is sustained.

So think before you speak. And whatever you do, make sure you always keep your sensitive documents and recordings confidential. That way, you won't give people something to talk about, or wind up singing the blues, like Ms Raitt.

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