The resignation of Kory Teneycke as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications brings to at least five the number of people tasked with managing the information flow between the Prime Minister’s Office and the news media since early 2006. All have had remarkable short tenures.
Teneycke says he’s leaving the PMO in order to spend more time with family. He’ll step down as soon as a replacement is named — which should be soon, given the possibility of an election campaign as early as this fall.
Clearly, however, the job of handling communications and the media for Harper is not for the faint of heart. The Prime Minister has now had more communications directors than there were press secretaries in the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations combined (a total of 16 years).
Harper is well known among journalists, political observers and even his own caucus as one who tightly controls media, messaging and information flow. At a conference in London, Ont., shortly after the swearing in of the Conservatives’ first minority government in February 2006, CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge labelled the new prime minister a “control freak” who was determined to change the fundamental relationship between the PMO and the news media. Evidence of that manifested itself through new rules of engagement established by the PMO early that year that dealt with scrums and news conferences (see CBC producer Ira Basen’s piece for Pressthink on the controversy). Many experts see the Harper strategy, when combined with the party’s own inventory of websites, new-media tools and consultants, as an effort to “decertify” traditional news media as agents of communication between government and citizens. According to those who work closest to Ottawa’s inner orbits, the working relationships between the news media and the Prime Minister remain delicate and mercurial.
Whenever the matter of communications and government comes up, I can’t help but remember the impossible task of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler during the final years of the Richard Nixon administration. Ziegler had the unenviable job of managing media relations through the Watergate years and the many headlines that eventually led to the president’s resignation. Contemptuous of the Washington Post, which was constantly on the leading edge of the story, Nixon held the threat of dismissal over Ziegler’s head, should he allow any reporter or photographer from the Post onto the White House grounds.
The ultimate embarrassment for Ziegler, however, came during a visit to New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1973. As Nixon was about to enter a convention centre to make a speech, he grabbed Ziegler by the shoulders, turned him around and shoved him in the direction of nearby reporters, who were shouting questions about the unravelling Watergate affair and Nixon’s role in it. The incident was captured on film by CBS cameraperson Cal Marlin, and it aired on the national newscast that evening. Dan Rather set up the clip by saying, “What you are about to see is a rare glimpse in public of presidential irritation. . . . The president’s aides deny he is nervous or testy or anything.”
Ziegler was the communicator who invented the term “photo op,” tried to dismiss the Watergate scandal a “third-rate burglary” and had a penchant for declaring previous statements, proven to be misleading or untrue, as “inoperative.” He died in hospital near his home in Coronado, Calif., in 2003 at the age of 63.