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BC Ferries' Spin Plan Exposed

Secret strategy to control public debate as company went private.

By Andrew MacLeod 5 Mar 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Memo fretted about citizens' backlash.

The British Columbia government knew the public might not like its plans to restructure B.C. Ferries, but it had a plan that relied on working with "trusted reporters" and friends of the B.C. Liberals to sell the idea.

"Communications regarding the restructuring will be a significant challenge," observed the 33-page communications plan, every page of which is marked "confidential" in large letters.

Dated Nov. 12, 2002, the document is identified as the sixth draft for the plan, and says B.C. Ferries and the Transportation Ministry developed it together. "We expect this announcement will attract high profile and sustained media interest, fuelled by controversy generated by opponents," the plan said.

Three weeks later, during an open cabinet meeting, then Transportation Minister Judith Reid, would announce a major restructuring of B.C. Ferries, reinventing the 40-year-old crown corporation as a private company.

The government would still own the new company, B.C. Ferry Services Ltd., but the yet to be fulfilled long term plan involved contracting out the routes and running the company more like an airport authority. Keep in mind that airport authorities don't usually own and operate planes.

NDP ferry critic Gary Coons said Premier Gordon Campbell made the changes to the ferry system without debate in the legislature or public debate or scrutiny. "He gathers together his 'Kool-Aid' drinkers to push the privatization and sell off our marine highway," Coons wrote in an e-mail. "A small piece of secrecy is lifted with his ferry 'communications plan.'"

Public concern expected

An appendix to the strategy details the things the public might dislike about the change. There would be "public concern about steep increases in fares and cuts in service," it said.

"British Columbians are proud of and feel a sense of ownership in the ferry service," it added. And there would be "Public concerns about foreign ownership, especially by a U.S. company," a concern for which the spinners were yet to come up with a planned response.

And then there was the question of accountability: "Concerns that an independent BCFS will no longer be accountable to ferry users and the voting public at large." At least in the old days the public knew who to blame when something went wrong.

The planners did, however, have a list of arguments in favour of the restructuring. In the wake of the "fast ferries fiasco," there was a sense change was needed. "Status quo from both a financial and service level perspective is unsustainable. Something has to be done."

The public would like that the move gets debt off the government books, they figured, and they would use the credibility of David Emerson, then chair of the B.C. Ferries board, to sell the idea. Finding some other way to fund the ferries would be acceptable, they thought. "Given the choice, the public would prefer taxpayers' money be spent on health care & education and the ferry system obtains alternative sources of finance."

The planning was also happening with plenty of lead time, another advantage. "We have the time to reassure and build support (allay fears) before the announcement."

Proactive communications

The plan the strategists developed called for a "sustained commitment to proactive communications" and broke out tactics for six different audiences: the media, third-party supporters, detractors, external stakeholders, internal audiences and MLAs.

It included this goal: "Obtain editorial board support from The Vancouver Sun, The Times Colonist, The Province, Nanaimo Daily News and the Prince Rupert Daily News."

Emerson would be the primary spokesperson, it said, and they would "Use other Board members, in particular Mark Cullen, Tom Harris and Maureen Macarenko, to support David Emerson by serving as spokespeople in their areas." The premier, transportation minister, MLAs for coastal constituencies and B.C. Ferries executives would also be briefed and given "media training" on the issue.

The day of the announcement the plan would be to "Proactively contact target media immediately after the Open Cabinet meeting to set up interviews for David Emerson and other Board members." They would "Educate media opinion leaders and key reporters on the restructuring in an effort to gain supportive coverage."

The plan called for arranging interviews for reporters with non-government people who supported the restructuring: "Provide media with names of supportive third party spokespeople so they are sought out for comment."

In the days that followed, they would "Use editorial board and media interviews to sustain the media coverage and continue to frame the story over the 10 day period following the announcement."

Even before the announcement, the communicators would be preparing the public for what was coming. "Leading up to announcement, arrange for David Emerson and other Board members to 'publicly muse' through briefings with trusted reporters about the Wright Report findings and the challenges facing BC Ferries."

Emerson and B.C. Ferries board members were to "place calls to key media" in the two weeks ahead of the announcement.

Trusted reporters

On Dec. 7, 2002, Times Colonist columnist Les Leyne had a front page story about the restructuring.

The story was written several days ahead of the announcement, and yet Leyne had many of the government's key messages:

-"B.C. Ferries will sail away from direct provincial government control and be run by a new authority as part of plans to be announced Monday," he wrote. "Regular, modest B.C. ferry fare increases over the next several years will also be announced by Transportation Minister Judith Reid."

-"The new operating body will be modelled after successful airport authorities. It will run the fleet and terminals on a much more commercial basis, sources familiar with the plans have confirmed."

- "Modelled on the mall approach many airports have taken, particularly Vancouver, expect to see various commercial enterprises with a strong B.C. identity spring up to take advantage of the thousands of people held captive in ferry parking lots during the peak season."

-"The model for the new approach is the Vancouver Airport Authority. . . The same man who oversaw that change -- David Emerson, head of Canfor Ltd. -- has been chairman of the board at B.C. Ferries for the past 15 months."

-"Although there will be no sell-off of assets or privatization of routes, B.C. Ferries will also adopt a policy of being open to offers from any private companies who may express an interest in creating new services within the system."

-"The new authority is expected to get full power to set the fares, independent from government. Sources said that historically, politicians have modified every single tariff change proposed by the corporation."

-"Sources say the remodelling of the Crown corporation's relationship to government will follow some -- but not all -- of the recommendations last year by consultant Fred Wright, who reviewed the corporation and recommended major changes.

-"After looking at how ferry systems all over the world are operated, Wright concluded: 'The private sector can do it better.'"

-"Liberal caucus members briefed on the new approach say they are pleased about the plan. And some are also pleased that after months of controversial changes, Monday will mark the third week in a row the Liberal cabinet has opted for a milder, middle course."

'Radically revamped'

Others also reported the government's line. Also on Dec. 7, the Vancouver Sun's Craig McInnes had the story: "Ferry relaunch Monday: Remake of B.C. system follows Wright's review."

He wrote that Emerson was involved: "The B.C. Liberal government hopes that by following the Vancouver airport model, the ferry system can raise the money it needs for new ships and foreshore improvements and that people will be at least willing, if not happy, to pay more for a better experience."

Jason Proctor at The Province had a story on Dec. 8, still a day ahead of the government's announcement: "B.C. Ferries is set to launch a radically revamped service tomorrow, modelling the Crown corporation's future on the operations of the Vancouver International Airport Authority. Insiders say the changes will mean better service at higher prices."

Following the announcement, there were numerous stories, but the Nanaimo Daily News' boosterism stands out. The paper's Valerie Wilson wrote stories with the following headlines: "New course charted to keep ferries afloat"; "...Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce backs new B.C. Ferry Authority"; "...B.C. Ferries gets thumbs up from local MLA, Tourism Nanaimo"; "...Reid pumped about changes"; and "...commuter lauds changes to ferries."

And here's Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer's warier conclusion: "The revised ferry corporation would be hard pressed to deliver a worse performance than its predecessor over the past decade. And perhaps a quasi-private corporation will be more capable at bettering service and generating revenues. But I doubt whether any but the most easily-amused travellers will ever look forward to spending more time in a BC Ferries terminal."

Ulterior motives

"Everybody uses everybody," Leyne said this week after hearing the government planned to work with "trusted reporters" on the announcement. "To learn they had a fairly sophisticated media campaign going doesn't cause me to fall over in a faint because we get used all the time."

He made the observation during a week when stories explored how the government tries to set the news agenda by keeping reporters busy and where press gallery reporters received gifts from the B.C. Pharmacy Association.

Leyne, who later wrote columns that were more sceptical about the B.C. Ferries restructuring, said he didn't recall talking with Emerson about the changes and wasn't sure who gave him the tip, but that it would be normal for someone to plant the seed of a story they wanted told.

"People don't just come up and give you something of their own volition for no good reason," he said. "There are usually ulterior motives involved."

More than six years after the restructuring, the changes continue to run their course. Recent Tyee reporting has shown fares are up, but earnings and the number of riders are down. The latest attempt to contract out routes failed. The company has taken on $1.2 billion in long-term debt and bought several new vessels that use much more fuel than the ships they replaced.

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