At the time this article was written Colleen
Soetaert represented Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert in the Alberta
Legislative Assembly. This is a revised version of her remarks to the 22nd
Canadian Regional Seminar of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in
St. John’s, Newfoundland in October 1999.
interaction between parliamentarians and the press is critical because the
media is a filter through which the general public views the institution of
Parliament. This article offers pointers to new and veteran legislators
interested in improving their working relationship with members of the press.
I think everyone in politics has
something to say and something to learn about working with the press. We
all have a horror story of how we were misquoted. Sometimes we have to
read the newspaper to see what we did yesterday because what the press says is
what many people are going to believe whether it is entirely accurate or not.
We all would agree that the press is absolutely essential for our job and for
our system of government.
I remember my very first
interview before the 1993 election. I was quite green and nervous but I
thought the interview went well until I saw the headline. “Villeneuve Mom Seeks
Seat.” Now I am proud to be a mom, but I had also been teaching for years
and I had volunteered in the community. But you see the connotation? A
mom was running for office, obviously willing to neglect her family. In rural
Alberta that has a different tone than in some more urban centres.
So what do you do when that
happens? In this case I decided to call. “You would not say Villeneuve
dad seeks seat. I am very proud to be a mom but that is not the only
criteria for running.” I think the journalist realised the bias of that
On another occasion a writer
with the Sun in Edmonton wrote in a column: “The Liberals are
going on retreat with left wing fembo Colleen Soetaert. Fembo. Is that a
feminist bimbo or a feminist rambo? I did not really know but I figured
it was not good. He had not once interviewed me but I was the women’s
issues critic so I must be a fembo, whatever that is. What to do with
such a columnist? In this case I just shrugged.
When talking about the media and
politicians we have to be careful not to generalise. Some politicians
want to be in the news and some do not. I was speaking to a minister one
day and he said to me: “Colleen, a good day for me is when I am not in the
For opposition members a
good day is if you are in the paper even if it is the last line of the last
paragraph: “Liberal transportation critic Colleen Soetaert says, Highway 794 is
a death trap.” Ah, I am in the news!
We also have to take into
account the nature of our ridings. I am from a small rural riding. We
have four local papers. We get covered more, I think, than one MLA in a
big city. They are looking for news, and if you are credible and you have
done your homework, you will get covered. I think that small local papers
are read cover to cover far more than the papers in large cities.
I do not think it serves us well to be overly
close to the press, but the relationship should be built upon honesty and
There are no courses on how to
be a good politician or how to deal with the press and the learning curve is
pretty steep. Nevertheless I would like to suggest a few basic rules that
can be helpful.
Nothing is off the record. I know many reporters fairly well, but I
never say anything to them that I could not handle being read in the paper the
next day. They have a job to do, and if you are talking to them and it is
newsworthy, they have an obligation to report it, even if it is, “A Liberal who
will remain unnamed....” Usually it is not hard to figure out the source so in
my relations with the press nothing is off the record.
Do your homework. How often are you caught off
guard and end up doing an interview without prior notice. If you can avoid
that, you should. It is important not to get caught off guard, especially
if you are emotional after some debate, or angry. Those are times when
you should give yourself a chance to cool down and think about it. In my office
I have Marilyn who is God’s gift to me and my family, who always finds
out what issue the press wants to talk about. You have a right to say:
“Let me do a little homework and I will get back to you.”
We cannot possibly be experts on
everything. In my area, I am often asked to speak on everything from health
care to gas co-ops, so I have to do some homework before I speak. Sometimes I
say: “Well, you know, the critic on that is Ken Nicol down in Lethbridge.”
They say: “No, no, we want the local comment.” So I phone Ken and ask for
Do not fight fire with
fire. If you
are asked a question that contains offensive language or simply words you do
not like, do not repeat them, even to deny them. Once in the Legislature, a
member was talking about maintenance enforcement and used the term “vindictive
leech mom”. Well, of course, as a women’s issues critic, I went to the
press, and as I was talking to the reporter he used the term “deadbeat dad”. I
responded to that, but guess whose name was tied with deadbeat dad? You
do not want to know the calls I got the next day; probably as many as the
vindictive leech guy. I had never used the term but I answered to it,
instead of saying “non-custodial parent” or some other term. That experience
taught me a bit.
Tell the truth even if it
hurts. I remember
once in our caucus something dreadful had happened and people asked how are we
going to spin this. Betty Hughes said: “We are going to tell the truth.”
I live by that. She is a wise woman respected in Alberta by people
of all political stripes.
Have you ever gone to a school
classroom and said: “How many of you think all politicians are liars and
cheaters?” I feel bad about the negative image of politicians.
We need to combat this and that means do not lie and do not get caught with
your hand in the cookie jar. We have to collectively work at changing the
negative image. Only our close families and friends know how much we
really work – the hours we put in it.
Make your point and get
doing an interview make your point and get out of there, because believe me, if
you start to ramble you will dig a hole. Nick Taylor, who is a Senator
now and was an MLA in Alberta, used to say to the MLAs: “Remember, when you are
talking to the press you are not in the confessional.” It was a good
lesson. You do not have to tell all. Answer it and get out of
Do not use jargon We often forget that we have a language
of our own. In the House there are all types of acronyms such as
Beauchesne or Erskine May. Many people do not have a clue what we are
talking about. I will even say QP, and they will ask: “What is QP?”
(Question Period). We forget it is a language we understand but
certainly the general public does not.
Image is important In my family probably only my dad is truly
interested in policy. He and I chat often. With everybody else it is: “Big
deal, we will work for you at election time, and leave us alone in between.” I
was driving home late at night after the House had closed and I phoned mom and
dad. I was talking with them about the day in the Legislature and I said: “Dad,
did you hear the question?” He said: “Yes, it was a pretty good question.” Mom
was on the other line too and she said:” Colleen, you know the outfit you wore?
Well, it made you look quite wide. Could you go with the stripes going down?” I
said: “Thank you, mother, that is really nice to know.”
She was right. Public image is
very important. Do not answer questions with your tie crooked or with a pen
coming out of your pocket. I think it is very important we have that
professional look in the Legislature. Betty Hughes’ trick was always to put on
fresh lipstick just before an interview because it made you look alive and
energetic. I do not think that would help some of you men out there. Although, it
could get you coverage.
Remember the human
electors do not see us as real people running around to volleyball games,
picking up grandchildren, going to the orthodontist. The Edmonton Sun
did a story on romantic moments on some profile people. They phoned me
and said: “Colleen, would you mind sharing a romantic story with us?” I said:
“Could I call you back?” I had to think when was the last time a
politician had time for a little romance. I ended up telling a story about riding
in the mountains – because we have horses and we ride in the mountains every
summer – and once my husband hauled water up from the river so that I could
have a shower. For me, camping in the mountains and having a shower –
that is romantic. All the other stories were about balloons and flowers
and hotel rooms but, I have to tell you, many people commented on my story
because it showed a human dimension to our lives.
Be yourself. Finally and most important be
yourself. Smile and let the people see the real you. Thousands
voted for you and when you get into the news in a positive way I think it
reaffirms that they were correct in choosing you to speak for them.