Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Raitt-gate" spurs my first blog post

Former Tory communications staffer Jasmine MacDonnell is this week's poster-child for the importance of remembering the little things (like "where you left your top-secret binder") in big PR jobs (like "Press Secretary to a federal Cabinet Minister").

In case you missed the story, Ms. MacDonnell was the Press Secretary for Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt; she reportedly left "a binder full of sensitive government documents concerning Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the troubled Chalk River reactor at the CTV Ottawa bureau last week" (see Joanna Smith's full article on The Toronto Star's website here). 

The leak of the contents of that binder became headline news, and embarrassed the government. Minister Raitt accepted Ms. MacDonnell's resignation, and members of the opposition called for the Minister's job, as well. Smith quotes Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff  as saying "I don't like people blaming 26-year-olds"; but if published accounts are correct, the fact remains that Ms. MacDonnell had a job to do (i.e. enhance/protect her client's reputation) and didn't do it.

PR professionals handle a great deal of information: some public, some confidential, and some potentially embarrassing. We develop and implement communication strategies to help every client put their best foot forward, which can be heady work -- but which is all for naught if our own actions harm that client's reputation.  

I'm sure Ms. MacDonnell is a fine person; any online reports I've read about her performance outside this incident cast her as a capable PR practitioner. [UPDATE: further media reports are indicating that this may not have been an isolated example of poor judgement on Ms. MacDonnell's part. Apparently, the binder and a voice recording of Minister Raitt referring to cancer issues as "sexy" were left behind at different media outlets on different occasions; and when a reporter called to let Ms. MacDonnell know she'd left the voice recorder behind, she promised to pick it up but didn't. That reporter only listened to the tape after the AECL binder story had broken. And we haven't yet touched on the topic of trying to have publication of the found recording banned by the courts...] But she's learned an important lesson the hard way: in PR, professionalism is paramount. Especially if you're going to play with the big boys, there'll be people watching for slip-ups; so you can't slip up.  

I used to joke with a colleague that the ideal PR person has that perfect mix of strategic ability, common sense, clear communications, manners, work ethic, and OCD.  That last part -- the part that makes you check your briefcase eight times for that top-secret binder [and your voice recorder] before leaving the building -- might have saved Ms. MacDonnell's job, and given her client one less bomb to defuse. 

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