Leading Through COVID-19 with James Baxter: Communications in a Crisis

7 minute read
Jb 6 Months

On June 4th, for IOG's live webcast, Leading Through COVID-19 #leadingthroughC19, IOG President Toby Fyfe interviewed former Founding Editor and Publisher of iPolitics, James Baxter. Baxter, a career journalist who is currently working as Special Advisor to the Assembly of First Nations, provided insights on Canada's media landscape and how it relates to the government and the current Covid-19 crisis.

When asked if he thought the media was responsible for the consensus that seemed apparent among Canadians around the Covid-19 crisis, Baxter instead attributed this to the overall consistent, factual messaging that came from the federal government and public health authorities. "I think Canadians really look to find ways to build a consensus -- I don't think the media was all that responsible for it, I think they passed along information that was much needed and craved."

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He continued, "I think Canada's governments writ large did a really good job of singing from the same song sheet getting their facts straight -- not burdening Canadians with a whole lot of options -- and that helps build a consensus. I think the information that Dr. Tam and others provided came arguably too late in some ways, but by the time it did, the appetite was there and the fear was there, and the information was at hand and the press conferences became must-see viewing and destination radio for a lot of people."

In comparison to the U.S., Baxter described Canada's approach to building consensus in a crisis by citing what he calls "blizzard culture". According to Baxter, as opposed to the American ethos of "rugged individualism", Canadians seem to approach crises more communally, and he thinks this is largely due to nationwide access to consistent media coverage via the CBC, for example. "I call it the blizzard culture", said Baxter. "In Canada we grow up and every couple of years we have a blizzard. We all get shut in together and look after each other -- you remember the ice storm of '97? We have these events in Canada, and our communities (particularly outside of Toronto and the big cities) are quite isolated, so there is a sense of commonality and community that perhaps is less apparent in the United States."

He continued, offering further comment on the U.S. media and how it might affect some parts of Canada moving forward. "I mean, nobody can rally around the flag like the Americans when they want to, but it also serves them very badly in moments like this. When somebody says 'well, I'd rather die going to my job than not go', forgetting that by going to the job they can infect their mother, their spouse, their neighbors, their desk mate, who then takes it home to their mother -- so there's a lack of forethought or generosity there that I think we may be a little bit fortunate to have." He continued, "...we are being polluted by Fox News particularly west of Lake Superior. Fox has a lot of viewers who don't tune into the CBC, they don't watch CTV, so a lot of Saskatchewan, Alberta and even the interior of BC get their news from Fox, so I think we could see that sense of Canadianism erode."

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When asked about the future of Canadian media, Baxter seemed both hopeful and discouraged. "[The Canadian media] is past going through troubles -- it is decimated; it is wreckage at this point. The TorStar Corporation was a billion dollar enterprise not that long ago, and it sold last week for 52 million dollars. I mean, that tells you what's left - not much. So, what do we have? We have one thing that other countries don't necessarily have, which is the CBC, and that does help with this broader consensus partly because we all see the same news, we all hear the same radio and it is uniquely Canadian and it does feature Canadian scientists and Canadian doctors and so I think we're fortunate in that regard. CBC is an important piece (Radio Canada in Quebec)."

With the current Covid-19 crisis in mind, Baxter reflected on how the consistent media messaging may have affected political responses among Canadians, but he wonders if this will last. "I think while there's a crisis and people are still going to hospital and still dying there will be a general sense of rallying behind the flag, rallying behind the leader. I think Trudeau and company at the federal level and Doug Ford and others at the provincial level will get an opportunity to take some bows at the end of this. Once there's a vaccine, once the hospital wards are empty, once I can give my mother a hug again without fear that I'm going to be giving her a death sentence, I think then we will get back to a normal sense of politics and the numbers will come down. They'll either come down gently like a leaf in the fall or they will plummet to earth if there are signs of a lot of mismanagement and/or crass politicking."

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So, what does Baxter think public servants need to consider when it comes to the media, as they move forward and course-correct after this current detour? "I can't tell you which way it's going to go, and obviously one of the lessons we will learn from this pandemic is: how do we get information out to an audience? Government going forward is going to have both a disability and a responsibility for informing people, and we will need to do something if we're going to have a unique Canadian media scene which we don't have right now."

He continued, stressing the need for public servants to rethink media post-Covid-19. "I think [public servants] need to be ready to be the media. It's a terrible thing for me to say, and my brothers and sisters in the business will no doubt bristle, but I'm concerned that we will actually not have the mechanical tools available to get good information, often self criticizing information out to the public when they need it. An informed electorate is a useful electorate and other than that, they become unruly and unproductive and I think that's something that as Canadians we need to be looking at very, very thoroughly. For the government departments, they should invest in good Comms people, but let them be honest --don't micromanage the message. Let them tell the stories of what's going on in the department and encourage it. And use the tools, the social media tools and the web tools that are available because I fear there will be no other way to get the message out -- and without an informed electorate you have other problems that are perhaps worse."


Thank you to James Baxter for sharing his experiences and opinion, and offering key advice to public servants surrounding media and communications.

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About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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