The government is succeeding in muzzling the communications of some charities that advocate on public policy issues. These charities are changing their communication under the current federal political climate. The combination of extreme rhetoric by government ministers (conflating charities with money-launderers, criminal organizations and terrorist organizations) and the fear, preparation for, and aftermath of, political audits from Canada Revenue Agency are causing them to change their communications.
My interviews with 16 charity leaders and five charity experts found that charities are changing their communications in four ways: the content (what they say), tone (how they say it), frequency (how often they say it), and the channel (they kind of media they use to say it).
My research data shows that though there is much variation from group to group in how communications are muffled, almost all charities reported direct or indirect changes of varying intensity. Two charities reported being very alert to ensure that they are not muffling themselves, but one leader notes that other organizations might notice a change in the leader’s communications: “It’s pretty hard to be objective with yourself. … Maybe other groups would see a difference.”
Several participants have made what they characterize as minor tweaks, such as not referring to “the Harper government” or “the Conservative government” or “Joe Oliver,” but rather “the current federal government” and “the Natural Resources Minister.” Another notes changing the tone of their website and brochures to sound “more educational” than previously. This participant also speaks of the psychology that has emerged in the workplace.
“You know, we were sitting having coffee the other day. .. One of the staff people says, ‘I just assume my telephone’s tapped.’ So, I think there’s a psychological thing there. I don’t think it affects day-to-day activities, but it does affect the psychology in which we work. The implication is that people get more angry and more focused …. The other thing is that they’re much more thoughtful and careful about what they say and do in any public setting, what they say on the phone, and what they communicate by email and texting.”
Seeing “chill” as the right descriptor for the “caution” around communications, this participant adds, “It also brings an edge because it angers people. It isn’t right, it’s a justice issue.”
Another participant says, “We’re much, much more cautious than we used to be. We’re taking on different issues and we’re taking them on in different ways. … Some [organizations are] more cautious than others but all of us are more cautious than is healthy.”
One organization has chosen to take the safest possible route, avoiding media, not signing on to sector documents, not criticizing the government or commenting publicly, and not allowing any criticism of the government to remain on their social media or website. This organization believes the government is determined to decertify it and just wants to “lie low” and so has effectively silencing itself in the current climate.
Leaders reported a couple dozen specific discursive changes being made by their organizations or that they notice other organizations in their sector making. They range from small tweaks to websites and brochures to hiding from public visibility. I’m not going to list them, but I will note some of the generalized approaches:
- Being “much more cautious” discursively
- Being “self-censoring’ more than previously
- Changing to a more “educational” tone
- Communicating less about government
- Avoiding public profile
- “Laying low” as much as possible
- “Even” avoiding comments on issues with no government policy.
There are some positive shifts also being made, which I will cover in a future blog.
Despite the large amount of media coverage in the national conversation triggered in part by my thesis findings, and now with a life of its own, the fear of charity leaders apparently continues. Reporters have been approaching charity leaders, trying to get them to share their stories publicly, but so far only three have chosen to do so.
The overall approach of leaders I interviewed was one of much greater care not to offend the government or attract attention of complainants or the CRA. In some of the discussions, I found the fear palpable, while in others the leaders were more sanguine, and one or two had found an opportunity to make lemonade from lemons to balance out the damage.
Though the charities may adapt, the impact of the muffling and diversion is not really about the charities anyway. It’s about the damage to the conversations we need to have about important issues to ensure the best policies are chosen. Charities are experts in their Mission issues. We need to hear their perspectives to get the full picture about the decisions we need to make at this time of major economic shifts, environmental challenges, health care, the increasing number of homeless, and so on.
That many charities have different policy ideas on these issues than are favoured by the current cabinet appears to be the core of the damaging political climate that they are now trying to negotiate.
I am a former journalist and media manager who recently completed my Master’s thesis for Royal Roads University and now work as a communication professional. I have been awarded the Jack Webster Award of Distinction, among others, for my reporting and editing.