Communications Policy of the Government of Canada: Some advice

Updated most recently in April, the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada is a very long guide for any and all bureaucrats who must tell us what their departments are doing.

I have some advice.

19. Media Relations

… Institutions must operate and respond effectively in a 24-hour media environment … 

It must be terribly frustrating to be a daily newspaper reporter in Canada’s third largest city — that would be Calgary — and need some important information for a deadline story from the federal government only to find out that most media relations offices in the National Capital region — that would be Ottawa —  are closed by 3 p.m. Calgary time. For a country with with 7 time zones, it’s always struck me as exceedingly odd that the national government (and most corporate HQ media relations and agencies, for that matter) operates as if the country has one time zone called Toronto.

Personally, I’m quite prepared to forgive our national government the burden of having media relations people standing by for phone calls “24-hours-a-day” — as per the policy above — but I’ve always found it tremendously puzzling that there are not media relations folks ready to respond to the queries of reporters working in the country’s eighth largest city — that would be Vancouver — at 4:30 pm Pacific time.

(Wait a minute: Did Akin just say Vancouver was the eighth largest city in Canada? Indeed, I did. Here’s the chart listing cities from big to small. I think it a sign of respect to recognize Surrey as Canada’s 12th largest city or Burnaby as the 20th largest city as much as as it is a sign of the reality of Vancouver’s boundaries to say it is the 8th largest. )

Deputy ministers should tell their media relations staff that they should never be afraid to drag an assistant deputy minister or a director general away from their early evening (Ottawa time) activities to respond to a media request from Edmonton, Prince George or, for that matter, from the late evening newscast originating in Halifax. And ADMs and DGs should understand that this is very much part of the job responding to Canadians in 7 time zones.

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

Some free advice (and this goes for any PR agency, corporate media relations department as well as government media relations): Organize your PR function that makes sense to your clients not to your internal HR depth chart. Your clients, in this sense, are reporters. But your clients have tremendously different needs so organize yourself that way. Most PR divisions I’ve seen are organized around geographic divisions or around subject area or product divisions. Here’s a good example from the Department of Foreign Affairs where inquiring media are informed that Ian is the guy who will speak to Arctic issues and Claude is the guy if you want to talk about Asia. 

At Microsoft (and I spent a decade covering this company), I challenge a journalists to get the right company PR person on the phone within three phone calls. Look at this chart and figure out who you should call for your quick on-deadline question. If you’re a Canadian (or non-U.S. reporter) you will get bounced to a “regional” PR agency who will inevitably have to call corporate PR at company HQ anyway … 

This all makes perfect organizational sense for Microsoft or the federal government from an internal standpoint but I’ve never understood why  government or corporations do not apply the “customer-facing” strategies to media relations that they apply to their sales or other stakeholder functions.

So here’s my advice:

Throw out the geographical/subject based division of our media experts and re-organize based on your clients, i.e. the news organizations you deal with. I would suggest the following all have very different needs and need specialized media relations experts for each:

  • Daily television news programs (national, provincial or regional — these are the dinner hour newscasts in most major Canadian cities, the national newscasts in the evening, or the national news networks) From a logistics standpoint, TV producers will make the most demanding media requests. TV needs not only a spokesperson who looks and sounds good on TV but TV will need b-roll. We need TV media relations people to clear our access to your facilities to film whatever it is you do. Whatever clips we use in TV of your spokesperson will almost never be more than 15 seconds long. Your hour-long technical briefing will be of almost no use to us. Sum it up in 3 minutes and then tell us that the rest is for print and trade publication reporters. As a TV journalist, I want to speak to a media relations expert who can knows why an interview outdoors in bright sunshine is the last thing I want.
  • Radio news programs. National or regional, the big deal with radio is that it needs something fresh every hour on the hour. The deadline is right now. The good news is: The interview can be one over the phone. Radio is looking for someone who can provide a pithy phrase and speak without mumbling. Radio also needs its version of TV’s b-roll. It’s called “natural sound” and it makes a world of difference when it comes to an excellent TV piece. Media relations people who find radio folks “natural sound” to accompany a story are worth their weight in gold. As far as clips go: See TV above.
  • Agency/national print media: Like radio, the deadline is right now but the likes of QMI Agency, Canadian Press, and the National Post may only need no more than two drafts of a story to run on their Web sites and in the next day’s paper. The deadline, though, is not 6 pm Ottawa time. It’s right now. Phone only required. We may need someone who can provide a bit more on-the-record depth and insight than the daily radio and TV folks. I had a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter tell me at a workshop once that quotes are not vital to the story. After all, I’m the professional writer and I ought to be able to say whatever you’re telling me much better than you can. But if there’s some emotion or a great turn of phrase that can really move a story along, that will get a direct quote. More important — and I do mean MUCH more importantly than a quote from a government official — is deep, rich information. The only way print reporters beat the immediacy of TV and radio is by providing context and analysis. I’m going to need that hour-long technical briefing. And I may need more. One more thing: My print story will get way better play in my paper (which every print reporter wants) if you can provide me with a drop-dead great photo opportunity. (And that is most definitely not a grip-and-grin). Call me ahead of time and see if we can set up some great pics to illustrate the story that do not involve a spokesperson standing at a lectern in the National Press Theatre. This media relations person will know that the fewer execs in a picture is a better picture.
  • Trade publications: See print media above. The deadline pressure may not be as tight but the need to go deep will be even more intense. 

So if I was king of the world, I would assign an English-language media relations person to Sun News Network, CTV, Global, and CBC and a French-language media relations for all calls from TVA and RDI. Assign another for any calls coming from CBC Radio, Broadcast News or talk radio producers. Put someone else on national print. And have someone else handle all incoming calls from trade and industry mags. 

That’s the way the sales departments do it in big organizations. They assign one guy or gal to their biggest clients. If those clients want something, they call that guy or gal and stuff gets done. 

My two cents …


5 thoughts on “Communications Policy of the Government of Canada: Some advice”

  1. So true. And exactly what I have been telling my media relatioms training clients for nearly 30 years. Not that they are listening. But your comments validate that I’m not out of date.

  2. Given that your blog post was about media, I question your use of the list of the size of the city inferring a link to importance. Certainly media outlets in Vancouver also cover North Vancouver, Surrey and Barnaby, and “Vancouver” remains the third city.

  3. Great post. Communications people need to be available for media 24-7, today more than ever.

    Most of us certainly strive for that. While we communications people should all have basic facts at our fingertips, making sure the right internal expert (not a communications person) is available to comment on a story quickly can be more challenging. We have to understand your information needs, identify the best possible person with the greatest depth of knowledge, ensure they have accurate, up-to-date facts and figures and then track them down. Of all of this, I find the greatest challenge is typically tracking down the expert. Here’s the thing: the people who have special expertise or a compelling perspective are seldom working behind a desk, they are busy presenting white papers or speaking at conferences or what have you. Here’s the other thing: they want to talk to you too. They hate missing the opportunity to tell their story or to share their perspective.

    I don’t work in Ottawa, I’m a consultant. Media are not required to go through me to talk to the people I work with but they usually do. I know they will only do that as long as I provide value through identifying the right people to talk to, ensuring that they have current information and ultimately — that we meet the deadline.

  4. Useful and insightful advice for the 24 hour digital world. Even your clear definitions of different media people’s needs belongs over every PR person’s desk. (Maybe one facilitator could connect all media with the right experts sans all those extra phone calls.) Yes, media offices that run on Toronto time are often inconvenient for Calgarian and Vancourite journalists — although email from mobiles makes up some of the time difference. BTW, I propose another category of specialist, one who would serve us daily and weekly news websites.

  5. Insightful analysis that should be posted over every PR person’s desk. I’d like to add another category, if you don’t mind: small independent news websites, like We publish weekly and we have a reporter and videographer on the Hill most weeks. We often need info, images or permissions over the weekend, when most government and business staff are at home. And we need quick responses to emails. Thanks for a blog post that turns the world around to make information easier to share.

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