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When the boss’s comms blows it for the rest of us

Katy Merrifield on what happens behind the scenes on terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.
It’s not your fault. But officially, it’s your fault.

Running political communications is a mammoth undertaking, but it can be worth it. Shepherding often dry, boring policy into a tangible, digestible narrative for normal people to understand is often rewarding in itself.

But when things go wrong, it can also be an unfettered hellscape. And this week, things certainly went wrong.

At a presser imposing new COVID-19 restrictions, Premier Horgan said people between 20 and 39 are “quite frankly, putting the rest of us in a challenging situation,” and appealed to this group to “not blow it for the rest of us…your parents and your neighbours and others who have been working really, really hard, making significant sacrifices so we can get good outcomes for everybody.”

I sharply drew a breath when I heard this, and felt a momentary pang of empathy for those comms staff whose day week was instantly ruined, because it was evident what was to come.

Naturally, the Twitterverse exploded with U40 rage, from all sides of the spectrum for once (it’s so nice when rabid partisans find common ground). The president of the UBC NDP, a 19-year-old who ran in last year’s election, criticized the Premier for failing to acknowledge the contributions millennials and Gen Z have made on the front lines during COVID in the hospitality sector, retail, grocery stores, and many other jobs that can’t be done from home.

To top it off, the Premier, who normally has a rather pleasant and engaging relationship with the media, seemingly forgot the majority of journalists and reporters these days are between the ages of 20-39. They certainly reminded him.

The government, obviously noticing the boss’s comments were not landing, sprung into action, sending a couple of their millennial MLAs to the wolves via cringeworthy Facebook videos. They restated the Premier’s generational blame game – only this time, using soothing tones. This, also, did not land.

The Premier forgot the majority of journalists and reporters are between the ages of 20-39. They certainly reminded him.

At this point in a senior communications role, you have to offer advice to stem the bleeding. If a Day One eruption is still smoldering the next day, it has to be put out.

You can go down a couple different paths here. As a staffer, the golden rule is to always protect the principal. Apologies from the boss, like it or not, indicate weakness and uncertainty to supporters, opponents, colleagues, and staff. These are not attributes you want associated with a head of government, particularly during a crisis.

That said, this premier has demonstrated he is capable of rapidly deployed, sincere contrition. During the 2020 election leaders debate, his “I don’t see colour” line was immediately addressed – before he had even left the debate studio. Why was this time different?

Informing your boss – be they a Premier, Minister, or CEO –  that they’ve just stepped in a bog of everlasting stench can be art in itself. You have to walk a fine line of recommending an apology or doubling down. A number of factors come into play, including who is briefing the boss, what level of trust they have, how vested the boss is in media coverage, long-term damage to key vote demographics, and critically, the boss’s mood at that particular moment.

When this happens, it’s important to know one thing as communications director: the things that go wrong are always absolutely your fault, even when they are absolutely not. You are the last step between policy and angry voter backlash, so please develop an affection for masochism. Quick.

Premier Horgan did himself no favours, trying to change the channel with a tweet thread the next day that contained a half-hearted nod to young people obeying the rules. Then, in two consecutive interviews, he doubled down on his original message.

When this happens, it’s important to know one thing: the things that go wrong are always absolutely your fault, even when they are absolutely not.

If I was to hazard a guess, it wasn’t his young staff that recommended doubling down, but a personal calculation: as the country’s most popular Premier with a current vote lock on the under-40s, he could afford a few days of knocks.

One could say that’s a smart calculation. Another could see a slippery slope for a government starting to take voters for granted.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.