Leading Lambs into the Lion's Den
By Grant Ainsley | Tips | [comments] | Posted [date]
For over a month, many Albertans have been pleading for Premier Jason Kenney, or others from the Alberta government, to get in front of the news media and announce steps to combat the 4th COVID19 wave in the province.
The cries of "Where's Kenney" went on for weeks before he appeared at a news conference just before Labour Day. That didn't stop most Albertans from wanting more done to get people vaccinated and bring down COVID numbers.
Last week, the Kenney government went to the well once too often in front of the media and the reporters there made them pay.
Media Punching Bags
For months I’ve felt like the government of Premier Kenney was living on the edge when it staged news conferences to talk about the pandemic, especially when things weren’t going well. Premier Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the occasional guest attraction have gone in front of the media to announce COVID updates and either new measures to clamp down on the virus, or loosen restrictions.
It’s clear from social media that many people want the news media to ask really tough questions at these events. They’re angry and they want to see political and health officials squirm.
I was in the news media for 15-years and have followed developments in the media for the many years since, and in my opinion, reporters have been professional during these sessions, but rarely asked real hard-hitting questions. With the odd exception, they certainly didn’t ask their questions with a confrontational edge to their voice. Maybe I’m old school, but I’ve felt the media has let government officials off too easily much of the time.
That changed last Thursday.
Health Minister Shandro was the main attraction at that news conference. He was joined by Dr. Hinshaw and Dr. Verna Yiu, President and CEO of Alberta Health Services.
It was like leading lambs into the lion’s den. All the government had to announce was a little bit of additional money to be spent on long term care and shuffling some hospital beds around to ease shortages.
I’m sure many of the reporters there were asking themselves That’s it? That’s all? 18 people died from COVID the day before in Alberta. Case numbers are again going through the roof and that’s all you’ve got?
When reporters realized they were being served a nothing burger from the government, the barrage of questions started. They were all difficult ones and most, if not all, carried a certain tone in the reporter’s voices. Not only were the questions tougher, but questioning had a more confrontational tone.
For months I’ve also wondered why reporters weren’t hitting Dr. Hinshaw with tougher questions. Last Thursday they did, especially Janet French of the CBC.
That may have been the toughest question Hinshaw has faced since she started doing news conferences in March of last year.
Let’s not forget about the team captain of this news conference Tyler Shandro.
The questions he got from several reporters were difficult and his answers were weak. He was feeding reporters word salad and it was painful to watch.
If Shandro would have been taking a media training class of mine, I would have made him to stay late to do more work.
Shandro has been in cabinet for two and a half years. He’s done dozens of news conferences, media scrums and other events the media has been at. His awkward “In due course” comments he made to reporters just after becoming a cabinet minister are almost ancient history now. He should have done better at last Thursday’s news conference. Instead he rambled, stumbled and failed to answer a number of questions.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Here’s the thing though. Whoever had the idea to do a news conference last week with very little to announce made a really bad decision that I could see coming from a mile away. The government stuck it’s chin out and it finally got nailed.
Essentially what happened was, Shandro and his team were sent into war with no ammo. They had very little to announce to try to limit the spread of the disease and then they had to take questions from angry reporters who wondered why they were even there. That’s not a good situation to put government officials in.
Let’s keep in mind this government is basically paralyzed by some MLA’s who don’t want more restrictions and don’t want unvaccinated people to live different lives than those who have been vaccinated. When reporters kept hammering Shandro about why more wasn’t being done, Shandro came up with the unbelievable reply that some people have said the government “hasn’t been political enough.”
On Friday, Shandro went to Drayton Valley and likely expected an easy ride there from the local media, but some Edmonton reporters showed up to ask him again why the government wasn’t bringing in vaccine passports and his answers were even worse. On the other hand, what can he really say?
I suspect it will be a long time before we see Shandro and Dr. Hinshaw doing a COVID update without Premier Kenney by their side, because they don’t want to get burned again. Questions from reporters will be even more difficult to answer.
The only cards the government has left to play is to reintroduce restrictions that will anger everyone, or take steps that will result in consequences for people who refuse to get vaccinated, in an effort to bring up the vaccination numbers.
When that newser gets called, I’ll bring the popcorn, because it should get really interesting.
Check Out This Podcast
Last week I was a guest on the Reputation Town podcast with Warren Weeks and John Pereneck from Toronto. Warren is a fellow media trainer and John is a Principal at StrategyCorp.
We talked about a number of PR and communications topics in the news these days, including the media activities of the Kenney government.
Give it listen and subscribe.