The perilous path of public perception

After nearly 40 years in the journalism business, one would think I’ve “seen ‘em all”

Close a major downtown bridge for a yoga-fest?

After nearly 40 years in the journalism business, one would think I’ve “seen ‘em all,” at least when it comes to political public relations disasters.

Apparently not. That aborted stunt by Premier Christy Clark was definitely a new one in my books – deeply infused with the “Um” factor, rather than “Om.”

You could also imagine that, given decades of media attention to this kind of gaffe, politicians would be developing a more finely tuned sense of public optics.

Clearly, however, that evolutionary cycle does not generally apply in elected public service – federal, provincial or municipal.

So, the next thought that might occur, is that astute politicians would hire optic-savvy communications advisors who don’t do well at keister-kissing.

And the really smart politicians then actually listen to them.

I’m not sure what it was in this case, but the negative optics of this urban exercise could have been spotted by a grade-schooler. Let’s shut down a key artery over a waterway in a major city for seven hours, to recognize International Yoga Day. Invite people out to do the downward donkey on the bridge. Sponsoring the event are two private corporations that are significant contributors to the provincial Liberal party which currently holds power in Victoria. One of those companies is Lululemon, internationally known maker of yoga gear.

One of its stores is at the end of the Burrard Bridge. Despite the multi-billion-dollar corporate heavies, the cost to taxpayers for this event is estimated at $150,000.

The date of the stretch-fest also happens to be National Aboriginal Day.

Any one of the above factors, starting with the closure of the bridge, should have sent even the most amateur of politicians and comms flaks into a wild-eyed, flapping fit.

Yet, it took a week before Christy and company finally caved in the face of public outrage and panicking sponsors, and cancelled the gong show.

That was a good one, although I’ve seen some real doozies in my time – many of them in Surrey, which during the 1990s, spawned a bumper crop of stunningly unperceptive representatives across the political spectrum.

Like the councillor accused of a conflict of interest, who trots out a distinguished citizen to speak in his defence – a former provincial minister who was bounced out of cabinet for … a conflict of interest!

Nothing wrong here, folks.

Around that time we also had a mayor who vowed that if the RCMP brought photo radar to the city, he’d have tow trucks haul away the Mounties’ van. Mmm hmm…

The fellow who preceded him employed similar gunboat diplomacy. When a feisty councillor wouldn’t stop heckling him during a public meeting, the mayor walked out of chambers, and called the police to make her shut up.

Hard to find that kind of leadership…

We also had a female MLA and friends who, for a joke, placed on the desk of a male colleague a prancing toy penis … wait for it … during a sitting of the Legislature.

Ha … ha?

Along those lines, I’ll never forget the time one of my female reporters came back from lunch with an elderly school trustee, who confided over their salads that he was still virile.

Once more, for the record, sir. Really, folks, I don’t make this stuff up.

So don’t feel bad, Christy.Many others in your line of work have face-planted on the perilous path of public perception.


Andrew Holota is Editorial Director for Black Press’ Lower Mainland division.