Mike Van Soelen is a crisis communications expert at Toronto public-affairs firm Navigator.
Justin Trudeau is in a pickle.
With the crisis around Governor-General Julie Payette’s workplace behaviour and resignation, the Prime Minister has painted himself into a tough corner.
Some of the trickiest scandals to shake are those that seem to confirm perceptions of the central actor. People find these crises easy to believe. It doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics for the average person to agree that big corporations are money-sucking evil entities – look no further than “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli. Or that government leaders too often take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach – look no further than former Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips. And while few feel any sympathy for former president Donald Trump, because the accusation he must be in the pocket of the Russians felt to most particularly believable, he was subjected to a two-year investigation led by Robert Mueller and countless accusations from political rivals, all based on little direct evidence.
Mr. Trudeau has a similar credibility crisis. His critics, and maybe even some of his fans, believe he’s unserious, celebrity-obsessed and exhibits poor judgment. They point to Mr. Trudeau’s bhangra dancing in India, photoshoot in Vogue and holidaying with the Aga Khan as ample evidence for their opinions.
On Friday, Mr. Trudeau addressed the governor-general fiasco for the first time by trying to deflect and avoid personal responsibility. He attempted to defend the decision to appoint Ms. Payette in the first place, while allowing that his government would “strengthen and improve” the vetting process going forward.
In other words, pretty standard issues-management tactics – drone on about process and hope the story doesn’t have enough oxygen to stick around.
It could work. While critics are expressing breathless reverence for the importance of our viceregal, it’s not clear how much the general public will really care about the governor-general’s centrality in the functioning of our Westminster Parliament.
The Trudeau government must now try to calculate how much life the story has.
The parliamentary media gallery loves a scandal, and it’s fair to estimate they will continue to pursue this one. It’s tantalizing enough; Ms. Payette throwing the “we all experience things differently” bon mot into her resignation letter is pure gold. There are many relatable elements, such as Ms. Payette’s rich government pension, that could keep the press gallery, talk radio and social media warriors interested in the story for some time yet.
I expect there were issues managers running around Ottawa this weekend, hoping to figure out a plan to change the channel. Seldom is there a crisis-communications meeting where someone doesn’t suggest as much. But the ability of those who are the focus of a crisis to diffuse it with manufactured distraction is highly overestimated. If the public isn’t ready to move on, the government’s efforts will be futile. The public will say, “Sure, it’s nice you were the first foreign leader President Joe Biden called, but about that governor-general screw up …”
So what can the Prime Minister do?
Some have asked me if Mr. Trudeau should just apologize. Apologies are tricky. In real life, we offer apologies to earn forgiveness. For most people in a crisis, there is no forgiveness on offer. The calculus is transactional; his team will be considering whether an apology from Mr. Trudeau, if he owns up to his culpability, would make the public and the media willing to move on.
The apology may help the government get past this episode, but only by having its leader agree to take the blame. The worst-case scenario is the PM apologizes, accepts a measure of guilt, and the public doesn’t move on. Recent celebrity scandals are chock-full of apologies that didn’t solve the crisis in terms of changing perceptions but did help get them off the front pages, as the public feels satisfied to have extracted its pound of flesh. Case in point: This year, former Glee star Lea Michele apologized for her horrid workplace behaviour; while the public moved on, I’d guess most people still believe she is a terrible person to work with.
The most effective solution would be for the government to put forward a nominee for governor-general who is universally loved, one whom the opposition would feel compelled to endorse. With that, the outrage about Ms. Payette may dissipate.
For now, it seems the Trudeau government will try to ride this one out, in the hopes that some other event overtakes it. Maybe the calculation will pay off. But the reality is when you paint yourself into a corner, it often takes a number of sticky steps to get out.
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