Miscommunication: how government’s PR gatekeepers are increasingly controlling the message

As media outlets disappear, PR and propaganda continue to expand
A historic-looking, three-storey stone building with tall, elegant windows,framed by a few tree branches, and fronted by green lawn and garden, with a winding path leading towards the building. Credit: Communications Nova Scotia

This article originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner in January 2021, but it is more relevant than ever. The provincial government may have changed, but media relations policies and lack of government openness have not. Meanwhile, media outlets and the number of journalists in Canada have continued to shrink, while the number of communications people and the onslaught of PR and propaganda have continued to grow. In his important 2023 book, Manipulating the message: how powerful forces shape the news, Cecil Rosner notes, “There are fewer than 12,000 reporters in Canada compared to nearly 160,000 employees in the advertising, public relations, and communications industry.” And those are Statistics Canada figures from 2023. Since then, several Canadian media outlets have made even more cuts to their news rooms and numbers of journalists. Because Meta is blocking all media on its platforms in Canada, I have decided to post more of my Halifax Examiner articles on this website, which – so far – Facebook and Instagram are not blocking. 

Unbeknownst to many people — and definitely unbeknownst to me before I returned to Nova Scotia after many years of working overseas and resumed reporting here in 2016 — journalists do not have quite the same rights that other citizens do in this province.

Apparently we journalists are not supposed to try to get into direct contact with government experts or scientists or officials, as other citizens can do. Rather, all journalists’ inquiries to the Nova Scotia government are supposed to go through media relations people.

At least this is what I was told in May 2018.

This is how I learned that lesson.

Someone had sent me an online notice from the provincial government about an upcoming meeting in Halifax. The meeting was to discuss the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan that promotes the mining industry, so that Canada can “remain a global mining leader” (which is one way of depicting the tarnished reputation that Canadian mining companies have given Canada, causing environmental harm and human rights violations in countries all around the world).

I emailed the provincial government contact provided on the notice, Tracey Medynski, asking what opportunities there would be for media to interact with participants at the meeting, which was, after all, open to other citizens who registered in advance.

A reply came back from Don James, Executive Director of the Geoscience and Mines Branch, which had not yet been moved to the Department of Energy and Mines and was still part of the erstwhile Department of Natural Resources. James said there would be no opportunities for media at the meeting.

I wrote back to ask James why, if the meeting were a government-sponsored event as it clearly was, and if government employees were involved as they clearly were, the media would not have an opportunity to interact with them, so they could inform the public about the way their money was being spent on the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan.

An ‘understanding’ with media outlets?

This time the reply came not from James, but from Bruce Nunn, “Media Relations, Department of Natural Resources,” who informed me:

Just a reminder that government has an understanding with media outlets that it coordinates media inquiries via its communications offices for each department. We are checking into your questions now and will respond.

I replied to Nunn, pointing out that the online announcement for the meeting did not specify any government department or “media contact,” and that I had merely addressed my inquiry to the RSVP contact it did provide.

After that, I didn’t hear any more on the meeting. Nunn never did send answer to my questions about it.

Since then, as I wrote here and also here, I have had a fair amount of difficulty eking information out of the NS Department of Energy and Mines (DEM), even when I did as Nunn instructed me, and sent my inquiries directly to the media contact for the department.

Recently, I’ve had similar difficulties getting answers from the Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) that, like DEM, is headed by Minister Derek Mombourquette.

DLF’s media contact didn’t send any answers to the questions I emailed on October 26, 2020 — and then resent on November 4 — about logging on Crown forests, Northern Pulp leases, and stumpage rates the government charges on wood from public forest lands. This led me to question whether DLF should change its name to Department of Silence.

Not all media relations are equal

Of course, not all federal and provincial government departments and their media relations people are equal.

Most interactions with government media relations people — both provincial and federal — are positive, and the majority of the people doing what is surely a very difficult job dealing with ornery and nosy journalists, are extremely hard-working, well-intentioned professionals working under a lot of pressure.

The professionals involved have a range of backgrounds. Some come from communications studies or public relations (PR) programs, and others come from careers in journalism, where there are fewer and fewer jobs even as the number of PR-related positions multiplies.

According to J-Source, the Canadian Journalism Project, between 1991 and 2011, the number of people in PR in Canada had almost doubled, meaning PR people — in communications, media relations, and related professions involving the controlling, shaping, massaging, and spinning of information and messages — outnumbered journalists four to one in Canada.

The federal government calls its communications service “media relations,” and a 2016 federal directive states that heads of communication are responsible for designating media spokespersons “to communicate with the media in an official capacity on behalf of the department.”

The Nova Scotia government created a special agency in 1996 called Communications Nova Scotia, “to provide centralized delivery of communication services with respect to non-partisan communications from the Government of the Province.”

Among those services are “media-relations services including preparation and distribution of news releases” and government communications that “are timely, accurate, effective, factual and respectful, objective and non-partisan, relevant to government responsibilities and priorities, and compliant with legal requirements and government policies and procedures.”

Which sounds great, but isn’t 100% true, at least not in my experience.

Most of the media relations people I’ve dealt with in provincial and federal government departments seem genuinely interested in helping the media. Some are truly extraordinary. I am truly grateful for their help and appreciate the efforts that go into finding answers for complex questions.

My beef is not with them.

It is with the system, and the frustration caused when no answers are forthcoming, or when one gets replies that contain bland, meaningless, boiler plate statements that hardly warrant the time it takes to read them, let alone quote them an article — statements such as “The Department of X is strongly committed to / actively engaged in protecting Y.”

Right. Sure it is. Unless it isn’t, and for some political or economic reason, something that government department should be committed to protecting is no longer getting that protection. In Nova Scotia a few such things spring to mind — like moose habitat, or land with “globally rare ecosystem” slated for protected wilderness status that the province seems willing to sell for a song to a US billionaire who wants it for a golf course or two, or healthy biodiverse or old-growth forests, or fish and fish habitat that are harmed by a dam across a river.

The frustrating search for straight answers

The search for straight answers to detailed questions can be exasperating. Sometimes it takes weeks of research even to develop the questions, because the journalist has to wade through thousands of pages of Environmental Impact Statements and dozens of Appendices submitted by a pulp mill or a mining company, which often seem deliberately designed to be confounding and difficult to navigate.

So, yes, it is more than a little frustrating when — on occasion — a media relations person (or perhaps that person’s political master?) decides not to provide meaningful answers, or any answers at all. Or to provide access to a government official, expert, or scientist who could.

In the past four years, since I returned to Nova Scotia and resumed reporting and writing here, despite many requests, I have never been granted an interview with a provincial official, expert, scientist, or minister.

Not once.

Federally, I’ve had a little more success, but not a great deal more. Since 2016, only one time has a media relations person agreed to arrange an interview for me with a federal government expert who would speak on the record.

On only one occasion has a federal government scientist whom I contacted directly agreed to an in-person interview. It made all the difference in the world in how well I understood — and thus wrote about — the issue at hand.

More commonly, however, when I ask a media relations person to arrange an interview, I am asked instead to submit a list of questions, which they — the media relations people — will then answer, albeit often in a well-spun way that the political masters permit.

Seeking elusive interviews

The problem with emailed questions is that there is no back and forth, not unless the journalist has the time and energy to keep sending follow-up questions and waiting for more answers, which tend to lead to still more emailed questions until finally the journalist gives up and says “uncle.”

All of this can take an enormous amount of time — theirs and the journalist’s — although theirs is definitely far more expensive, better remunerated, than that of freelance journalists and writers.

I’m old school. I like the iterative process of interviews. When someone provides new information in an answer to one question, that generally leads to other questions and more answers, new angles and valuable information, all of which is vital for informative reporting on issues of public importance and interest.

So every now and then, when I know the name of the government scientist or expert who could answer my questions, I contact that person directly, hoping to arrange an interview that will involve genuine back and forth and spare the long and unsatisfying email threads with media relations people.

I’ve done that a few times in the past few months, gone directly to a federal government scientist who has been highly recommended as the person with the data and expertise I need.

Each time, a reply has come back from the media relations people in the scientist’s department, asking me for a list of questions, even if I’ve already submitted general ones to the scientist, who has obviously forwarded my email rather than reply to it.

Federal government not much better

This happened twice recently when I contacted scientists in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). So I wrote to DFO media relations asking if there was someone I could interview about their policies on interviews. I also sent a list of questions.

No surprise, no interview was granted. Instead, I received these emailed replies:

Halifax Examiner: What instructions are DFO scientists, directors, managers, and other experts given if a journalist contacts them directly? Are they instructed to forward media inquiries to media relations persons, or is it up to them whether they reply or accept an interview?

DFO: Departmental scientists are encouraged to speak publicly about their research and are asked to inform the Department’s media relations teams, as a courtesy, either before or after an interview with the media takes place. All other media requests are centrally coordinated by the Department’s media relations teams across the country. This is done to ensure the best spokesperson is available and to facilitate the information being provided within the reporter’s deadline. A spokesperson is selected based on their expertise and availability. Where an interview is not possible, a written response is provided.

HE: When a media inquiry involves a request for an interview with a scientist or other government expert on a subject, who decides whether an interview will be granted?

DFO: Media calls are received through the Department’s media relations teams in each region as well as centrally in Ottawa. Spokespersons are selected based on their area of expertise and availability. Where interviews are requested by journalists, every effort is made to secure an appropriate spokesperson with expertise in the subject, in the reporter’s official language of choice, within the reporter’s deadline. Where interviews are not possible within the deadline provided, a written response is provided to ensure that the Department’s is still able to answer the media’s questions and speak transparently on issues, programs, policies and initiatives under its purview.

So there it is. It seems journalists are not supposed to contact anyone but the “media relations teams in each region” or Ottawa. And they will provide spokespeople.

Or they won’t.

Communications NS fails to communicate

To find out more about the way that the provincial government handles media inquiries, I sent a list of questions to Chrissy Matheson of Communications Nova Scotia, which calls itself the “government’s full-service communications agency” that “helps Nova Scotians understand what the government is doing and why.” I also asked if it would be possible to interview her.

As of publication, I am still waiting for replies to the questions I first sent to Matheson on December 16, 2020, and then resent on January 4, 2021.[1]

My frustration with the media relations interface — that sometimes felt like an impenetrable wall — between journalists and government, has been welling up for some. But is it warranted? Am I being unreasonable? Am I expecting too much transparency from our governments?

Was the purpose of media relations something completely benign — to keep public servants from being bombarded with questions from journalists? That doesn’t really make sense because the public, people who are not in the media, is still allowed to speak to government officials and experts directly, while we in the media — ever fewer of us in the ever-shrinking media landscape — are not, at least not outside government-scheduled press briefings, which cannot begin to compare with actual interviews.

I’m not in a position to know whether it was always thus — whether there was always some kind of media relations buffer separating reporters from government officials in Nova Scotia and Canada, as I had worked for so long abroad, often in young or non-democracies on the African continent, where I had a great deal of access to government officials, ministers, and even presidents. Maybe my expectations were too high?

What does this mean for government accountability and transparency?

For some historical context, I turn to Stephen Kimber, fellow contributor to the Halifax Examiner, and multi-multi-award winning journalist who is a professor of journalism at and former director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College.

Kimber tells me that media relations definitely has its uses and functions, particularly if media requests are so numerous that they become unmanageable for government leaders. But, he says, it has grown and “become more and more a weapon to use against journalism and against giving out information.”

Kimber adds that if a journalist knows who they want to speak with, and that person is the expert in a field, there should be no reason why the a journalist can’t bypass media relations and go directly to that government official and ask for information.

“That seems to me is perfectly reasonable and a good thing,” he says. “But over the years it’s really changed and become a weapon. I think that’s what it is now, it’s a way of preventing information from getting out there.”

“There’s a kind of top-down control that government ministers and their press secretaries, their spokespeople, have determined that they want,” Kimber says. “They want to be in control of the message no matter what the message is, and therefore the instruction goes out to civil servants, ‘If you get a request from the media, you are to immediately refer it to us.’”

Kimber understands why someone would do that to keep their job, but he notes, “It’s not in the public interest that they do that. It is in the interest of the minister of the government of the day. It has nothing to do with the public interest.”

‘Harmful to democracy’

James Turk is Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Ryerson University, and Director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression.

A smiling man with glasses faces the camera. He wears a pale blue shirt and his arms are crossed. Photo: contributed

James Turk (photo contributed)

Turk says that in the federal government there has been a “gradual diminution of the wall that should exist between the PR folks who work for the minister, the political PR folks, and the civil servants in communications who are to facilitate the public’s awareness.”

Civil servants are often “hamstrung,” in Turk’s view, because government leadership wants to shape how the public understands an issue.

“It’s something that’s been gradually happening,” Turk says, as government media relations lose the notion that they have a “professional obligation to facilitate public access, to see that their job is really to the public, to represent the public, to make sure the public can hear — and the eyes and ears of the public are journalists — to one where they’re, some feel, PR flacks for their minister or deputy minister or department.”

Turk also believes that it is “wholly inappropriate” for a government scientist or policy official to refer a media request to their communications department. He adds:

It’s not the role of the communications department to decide who can interview whom. It may be that the scientists or the policy person you’re wanting to talk to may want to talk with the communications department about how they might word what they want to say, and so forth. But the communications department should never be the gatekeeper. That’s what the Harper government essentially set up: the communications people as the gatekeeper for science.

Turk, who was executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers during the Harper years when there was an explicit policy forbidding government scientists from speaking to the media, says that openness of media relations people depends a lot on political leadership:

If the minister or the deputy creates a culture [for its media relations people] in which their role is seen as public service, and the public are not the potential problem but are the people they work for, then there’ll be a very different attitude. And so I think you’ll find variation. There are certain departments that — and you named one of them [he is referring to DFO] — have a long history of being very reluctant to be open, to share, or see that their responsibilities are to the public.

Asked how the lack of transparency caused by political control of government communications could affect democracy, Turk replies:

It leads very directly to the mistrust in government that so many people feel, absolutely. The best way to build trust on the part of governments is in transparency. Every time a government acts in a way that obstructs transparency, that obstructs public access, that obstructs openness, it undermines public trust in that government.

Canada really rates very badly in terms of transparency and providing the public the right to know, in terms of access to information legislation, federally and provincially, it’s quite lacking in so many important ways. There are various international comparisons of access to information across 50 or 80 countries, and Canada always ranks well down the list.

A lack of transparency, Turk says, is “harmful to democracy and harmful to people’s trust in government.” People start to wonder what government has to hide, and why public servants, who are supposed to work for the public, are not providing that transparency.

Turk says traditional media are being undermined by social media that are gobbling up advertising revenue, so there are only a handful of media that still do serious investigative journalism, which is expensive.

‘Definitely not in the public interest’

And yet good investigative journalism is essential because, according to Turk, “traditionally journalists have been understood to be the eyes and ears of the public, the people who ask the difficult questions, dig below the surface to cut through the BS and the spin, so the public can really know what’s going on.”

Turk says that it is “theoretically possible for a government to set up a communications department whose role is to facilitate genuine access to information, so the idea of a communications department is not a bad idea.” But only, he adds, “If it’s seen that the role of the communications staff is to expedite the connection between the journalist and the appropriate person within the government infrastructure.”

However, Turk tells me he suspects that such a government communications department is the exception rather than the rule.

Turk says that there has been a gradual redefinition of the role of communications people in government, who increasingly have become “agents for how and what the minister or the premier or the government wants to be known and not known.”

And, as Stephen Kimber pointed out, that is in the interest of the politicians, and definitely not in the public interest.

Editor’s note: As this article was going to publication, I finally received the following response from Communications Nova Scotia spokesperson Chrissy Matheson.

Thank you for your questions. I will be declining your request for an interview.

Communications Nova Scotia (CNS) is legislated to provide coordinated communications for government, including media relations. Our communications staff have coordinated media inquiries for government for many years, working with department staff and elected leaders to respond to calls efficiently and professionally.

Decisions around how to respond to media requests are made on a case by case basis. A number of factors are considered when determining whether an interview or a statement is most appropriate, such as the availability of the potential interviewee and the complexity of the subject matter. When a statement is provided, we work with experts to develop timely and factual responses.

There are other opportunities for journalists to access elected officials, senior leaders and experts. For example, cabinet ministers are available after cabinet meetings to answer questions from the press and senior officials and expert staff are regularly available during bill briefings, press conferences and following appearances at committees.

During the pandemic, the premier and chief medical officer of health hosted more than 100 press conferences, responding to dozens of media questions each time. Your outlet has participated and been given the opportunity to ask questions during numerous briefings.

I appreciate your feedback and I hope this information is helpful.


[1] This is the email inquiry sent to Matheson on December 16, 2020: “This may seem like an odd inquiry, because it’s about the procedure for media inquiries with the provincial government, as I am doing research on this for a piece I plan to write for the Halifax Examiner. My questions are as follows:

1. When I was a young journalist, many years ago, it was possible to contact a government expert or scientist directly for an interview about a particular issue. As I understand it, or as Bruce Nunn has informed me a couple of times when I have tried to speak directly with someone in government, now the media have an informal agreement to always direct inquiries to media relations people who are part of Communications Nova Scotia.

– When was this informal agreement made?

– And with which media?

– How was it made? What does it entail?

– Is this an official government policy? If so, can you please direct me to it, or send me a copy?

2. On several occasions I have asked media relations for an interview with a minister or a government expert on a particular issue, and have never been granted one. Instead, I am generally asked to submit a list of questions, which media relations then answers, although not always with direct or clear answers, which leads to a lot of back and forth, and often still no clear answers.

– How do media relations people decide whether an interview is granted to a journalist?

3. I understand that government scientists and experts are very busy, but there are times when interviews are essential, and they are the only people in a position to answer. An interview, especially one that is part of the research on a complex issue – particularly when it involves a lot of science, is an iterative process. While there may be a list of initial questions, depending on what the journalist learns from the answers, new questions will inevitably arise. An emailed list of questions with an emailed list of answers is a very poor substitute for a real interview. Thus, it is difficult for me to understand why so few (in my case no) requests for interviews are granted, as they are essential if journalists are to understand – and thus be able to convey to their audiences – complex issues and decisions being made by government.

– Can you help me understand why interviews with government experts or scientists seem to have been replaced by emailed lists of questions to media relations people?

– Why is the role of the media relations people not to help identify the correct person to speak and then help arrange an interview with the media?

I would be most grateful for your kind assistance with the above questions… or, even better … would it be possible to interview you about this issue?

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