Jason Kenney's Media Troubles
The pandemic was declared ten months ago today and as we work our way through the start of 2021, we're all hoping we'll be closer "to normal" in a year from now than we are today.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is sure hoping so. Some of his fellow Premiers saw their popularity drop in 2020, but none more than Kenney. Lately he's been attacked in the media for everything from not being tough enough on traveling politicians to working out of Alison Redford's Skypalace. Oh, and then there's those nasty COVID numbers.
I think he should stop trying so hard.
Trying Too Hard
Over the Christmas holidays I got an email from a reader suggesting I do another blog rating the media skills of prominent politicians in Alberta and Canada.
I thought it was a great idea for my first blog of 2021, but when I started to think closely about what I was going to write, I kept coming back to Jason Kenney. Maybe I’ll do the critique of other politicians later, but today the focus is on the embattled Alberta Premier, who can’t seem to do anything right in the media these days.
Not long after Kenney and his UCP government were elected in the spring of 2019, I wrote a blog about Kenney’s media skills. You can read it here.
Not much about Kenney’s abilities with the media have really changed, but these days, he’s just trying too hard. Let me explain.
Long Answers and Too Much TV Time
I think Kenney has made a mistake throughout the pandemic. He’s been front and centre too much.
In fairness to him, he’s tried to show he’s doing his job as Premier and he’s been prominent at news conferences related to the spread of the pandemic, to public restrictions and the vaccine rollout. Don’t get me wrong, he needs to be there, but he should allow others to do the heavy lifting. He’s not. He speaks first, covers all the main points and then Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and others repeat much of what he’s said.
A better strategy would be for Kenney to make some overarching comments and then turn it over to his people to do the hard work. If one of them says something that gets them into trouble, it’s not Kenney’s fault.
Former Premier Rachael Notley did this during the Fort McMurray fire and it worked quite well. She showed she was in charge, was on the scene, used some higher-level messaging, commended the firefighters and let fire and emergency management officials do the explaining and take the hard questions.
The other suggestion I would make is for Kenney to give shorter answers. Most of them go on for far too long these days. Once again, he’s trying too hard. He should pick one key message to answer a question with and hammer it home. Some of his answers go on for over two minutes, which gives lots of time for him to say things that result in confusion.
A great example was his statement on New Year’s Day that the government “promotes safe travel.” When asked about that statement last week by reporter Julia Wong of Global News, he corrected her and said he didn’t say that.
But he did say that.
He’s now using the term “facilitate safe travel” and his response was another lengthy one that resulted in even more confusion over what’s against the law and what's just recommended.
Let’s face it though. Kenney is in a tough spot. The honest answer to several media questions is “Yes we know it’s not totally safe to do this, but we’re trying to keep the economy going, so if people want to risk it, we’re not going to stop them.”
While I’m at it, can I join reporters in asking for two lecterns for the Alberta government news conferences when they have more than just Dr.Hinshaw doing updates?
It looks like amateur hour when Hinshaw, Kenney and others have to do their awkward dance involving masks and hand sanitizer. As they take all these safety measures, it’s bizarre to see them speak into the same microphone and at times touch it. That can’t be totally safe either. It's like watching dozens of kids use the same bottle of hand sanitizer when they enter schools, all touching the same handle.
Even though kids have been in schools since last September, reporters still aren’t allowed to actually attend these news conferences. Kenney, Hinshaw and others talk into a virtually empty room and questions are taken over the phone from reporters. Of course, this allows the government to decide who gets to ask questions and reporters are also prevented from asking follow-up questions if their first question wasn’t answered properly. The government has far greater control this way.
Kenney’s biggest problem is the plunging popularity of both himself and his government, according to public opinion polls. Those same polls clearly show Albertans are not happy with how their government has handled the pandemic.
Politicians are learning the pandemic isn’t like any issue they have ever tried to manage in the media. The closer they get to it, the worse they look because the virus is stubborn and whatever decision they make is going to be criticized. The moves they’re making would also work much better if everyone followed the rules. But many are not and the virus continues to spread. That makes Kenney’s job even more difficult, as questions from reporters become more aggressive.
Kenney needs to continue to lead and show he is leading, but when you’re in a hole you need to stop digging.
Do You Need Media Training This Year?
All of my media training workshops are now done virtually and there are four reasons why doing virtual media training can be better than doing the training in person. I did a quick video talking about what they are.
It appears to me that Premier Ford is conducting his press conferences similar to those of Premier Kenney. I think Premier Ford is getting better poll ratings. Do you agree? What is the difference between the two Premiers, I’d any, from what you are seeing, Grant. Bruce C.
Ford has had fewer issues. COVID has been, and still is his biggest issue to manage by far. Kenney has had to deal with a whole list of problems and that's why his poll numbers are so low.
I am glad you mentioned the microphone sharing at these news updates. My daughter pointed that out to me some time ago (she works in that area and was incensed by their lack of seeing that as unhealthy). Sometimes things will not go away if we are pushed far enough - I believe there will be enough of us this time to remind others of this event and our anger toward JK's actions/non-actions. If he can go sooner, all the better for AB.
Good post, Grant.
Thanks Linda. There are so many things we used to do all the time and now realize how those actions can spread germs. I wonder how many people will continue blowing out candles on cakes and then serving the cake at a party?
Definitely not an easy place for Kenney to be. He is likely going to need to just keep slugging through and hopefully people forget by the time the next election comes around. If it was a spring election, he would be in real trouble. Great post Grant.
Yes time is on his side and history too. But Big Mo (momentum) is certainly against him.
He's torn between what he needs to say and what his base wants to hear.