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Candidates dismiss public, cost APTN.

The place is anywhere, another emergency meeting of chiefs. The specifics aren't important because it's happened so many times. Chief after chief rises to condemn the organization for "not getting the message out." The people have to know, they say. However, there's not a single reporter in the room. The chiefs threw them out.

This happens all the time at national, regional and local meetings. It's more noticeable at national meetings, however, when you see CBC Newsworld crews tearing down their equipment in disgust. They want to be there. They know the issue is important for Canadians to know and to understand. They've committed time and money to be there. They've OK'd it with the organization. Then, a single chief rises and demands that the media leave the room.

This is when the communications person cringes. The organization has just shot itself in the foot. It has not only damaged the perception of the organization, it's made the communications person look like a fool. The only thing to do is shrug, roll your eyes and throw yourself on the mercy of reporters with, "Hey, what're ya gonna do, eh? Those wacky chiefs ..."

Some reporters leave in a huff. They don't have to be treated like pond scum by some two-bit organization. They'd rather be treated like pond scum by some other, far more important, organization.

The reporters who stay cool their heels in the lobby. They know they're still going to get the story. There are all kinds of weasels popping out of the meeting to give their particular spin. But that's not the point. The point is that it's so unnecessary, so counter-productive.

In the end, the organization looks clumsy and amateurish. It's lost credibility, which is everything in the public relations business and absolutely essential for Aboriginal and minority groups that need the support of the Canadian public for political advantage.

Can't they get it through their thick skulls that they need good relations with the media if they hope to gain public support? Isn't it obvious that without public support, white politicians don't have to listen to them? Apparently, not.

This is just one version of the "nightmare scenario" that the communication expert has to contend with. There are others. A client never returns calls to reporters, makes appointments then breaks them, never shows up for scheduled interviews. A client is caught with his or her hands in the cookie jar (or beats his wife, or makes racist comments) and is unremorseful. A client stares in the face of the facts and then denies them. A client deliberately spreads distortions, disinformation and lies.

There isn't a reporter covering Aboriginal affairs that can't provide examples, names of individuals and organizations that have committed all of the above. Nor is there a reporter covering Aboriginal affairs who hasn't looked the other way from time to time. Perhaps, even, most of the time.

How many times have Aboriginal politicians said that their concept of "public relations" is to "control the media," meaning restrict access, deny information and refuse to answer questions? How many times have reporters shown up for "public meetings" only to be thrown out, while non-media, non-Aboriginal "observers" remain, take notes and report back to their ministers? There's only one word for this behavior--idiotic.

Even when what is at stake is the national chief's office at the Assembly of First Nations, the idiocy continues. The news department at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network worked hard to arrange a nationally televised forum for the candidates. All of them, Roberta Jamieson, Phil Fontaine and Matthew Coon Come, committed to it a month in advance. APTN spent a lot of money on advertising to get people interested, involved and watching. It even rescheduled the forum to accommodate the candidates' plans.

The candidates agreed to the debate, which included a question and answer period for reporters and for the audience, who sent by e-mail, phone and fax, questions of concern from across the country.

There was no hint of trouble until an hour before the show. That's when Jamieson's media handler called to say they'd heard Fontaine was a no-show. No Phil? No Roberta.

"We speak for Matthew as well," the handler said.

APTN called Phil Fontaine's handlers.

"Didn't you get the fax?" They said they faxed APTN to cancel Fontaine's appearance 90 minutes before the program was due to be taped. Fontaine was in Aklavik and his people hadn't bothered to contact the producers directly that he wouldn't be there.

Matthew Coon Come and Roberta Jamieson give softball interviews to the CBC. Afterward, and separately, they wandered over to APTN expecting to be given air time. By now, however, APTN had pulled the plug on the debate. Carefully rehearsed messages--without questions--was not what APTN had promised its audience.

Forget that Coon Come and Jamieson missed a golden political opportunity. Imagine one empty chair and the inherent message that would have implied. Instead, there were three empty seats. In the end, the message the candidates conveyed is that Aboriginal people don't matter to them.

Who's to blame? The candidates and their so-called "handlers," who have shown they know nothing about public relations. All of them proclaim the need for "better communications" to inform the people. They profess to encourage more accountability to the people. When given the chance to do so, however, they failed miserably.

As a journalist, it's an unfortunate part of my job to take this kind of treatment. What's unacceptable is that these candidates treated the Aboriginal audience this way as well. It was rude and disrespectful. People deserve better.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network; Medium Rare
Author:David, Dan
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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