Postmedia's conversation with the Mayor

Kevin O'Donnell
2014-11-09 19:26

On November 3rd, 2014, Ryan Kelahear of Hill+Knowlton, on behalf of his client Paul Godfrey (President and CEO of Postmedia), met with the Mayor of Ottawa and his staff to discuss "Postmedia's acquisition of Sun Media’s English Language Newspapers and Digital Properties".

I requested more information on the substance of the conversation from Serge Arpin (Mayor's Chief of Staff) and from Godfrey's office. Both confirm the discussion was informational in nature and no lobbying took place.

Via email, Arpin states the meeting "was simply a courtesy meeting with Mayor Watson to inform him of what had already been made public in various media outlets". Via telephone*, Godfrey informs me that Hill+Knowlton is Postmedia's communications firm and is not engaged to lobby the City of Ottawa on Postmedia's behalf.

I did not reach out to Ryan Kelahear for comment, but I suspect he registered the meeting in the lobbyist registry out of an abundance caution, given he does lobby City Hall on behalf of other clients.

So now we know: there's nothing more to know.

Transparency in action

This is an example of the Lobbyist Registry functioning properly. On first blush, having a lobbyist meet with the mayor on behalf of the most powerful media company in Canada (who may soon have an english daily newspaper monopoly in Ottawa) raises questions, if not concerns.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's important to remember that even if we never learned more details about the meeting, we at least know more than we did before. With the lobbyist registry we know what we don't know, as opposed to not knowing what we don't know.

Gaining more insight into the workings of City Hall has a positive feedback loop. As soon as we know more, we want to know even more. There is a natural tension there.

* Why meet with the mayor if there's no lobbying?

I did not expect to get a call back from Postmedia, let alone a direct call from Mr. Godfrey. Our conversation was brief. Godfrey clarified for me that no lobbying took place. I let him know that aligns with what I heard from elsewhere, and that was pretty much it. (Note to self: always be prepared with a really great question on the small chance someone does return your call)

Afterwards I got to thinking about two things: why dispatch your communications firm to talk to (but not lobby) the Mayor in the first place? Also, why take the time to call back some random guy who's asking about the meeting?

I don't know for sure, but I think the answer is: issues management. The City of Ottawa has no direct control over the TransCanada pipeline approval process, nor does it have a say in Postmedia's purchase of Sun newspapers. Yet both companies have an interest in ensuring high-visibility public figures have nothing bad to say about a company's project. 

On one hand, a councillor or the mayor's opinion on Energy East or media ownership concentration is moot from a process point of view. Mayor Watson has no more say on the matter than you or I. 

On the other hand, an offhand remark from any mayor on Energy East or the lack of media competition in Ottawa would be reported on, and could easily shift public opinion. Tipped far enough, pipeline approvals and newspaper acquisition deals can fall apart.

Given the huge sums of money involved, hiring a communications firm to meet with local politicians and let them know your company's story first goes a long way to lowering the risk of negative public opinion emerging. These conversations are relatively inexpensive bulwarks against any opposition that may emerge later.

What do you think about the Ottawa Sun and Ottawa Citizen sharing a parent owner?

Godfrey remarked to me that the Sun acquisition still has to be approved by the Competition Bureau (see media release). Part of that approval process involves public consultations which is as easy as filling in this form on the bureau's website.

Part of the bureau's mandate is to solicit comments from "customers", which is you, so don't be intimidated by the field asking for your company/association/organization (it can be left blank).

So, in the Competition Bureau's own words, "Canadians consumers and other stakeholders who wish to share their views on competition related issues regarding this proposed acquisition are invited to do so via the Bureau’s website."

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