Wednesday, May 31, 2006

FPI - Don't Breach the Fourth Wall

Listening to a CBC radio story this morning, Mr. John Risley was quoted commenting on the FPI amendments just passed in the House of Assembly.

You might remember that one of the points of the changes was to "dilute the influence" of some directors because government has not been happy with the executive committee. This committee, comprised of Rex Anthony (NL), John Risley (NS) and George Armoyan (NS), has been running day-to-day operations at the company in lieu of a CEO.

The FPI amendments require, among other things, that the Board and all Board committees should be a majority of locals. The operating government theory articulated for public consumption, and for opposition too for that matter, has been that evil mainlanders have been raping the local industry for their own benefit and that we need true-blue Newfoundland and Labradorians (pur lain NL'ers in Quebecois parlance) on the Board to protect us.*

While making my coffee I heard Mr. Risley state that he will appoint more locals to the board as well as to all committees, including the executive committee, to make it compliant with the law.

So far so good. That would have been enough to say but then he went further. He then said that it really won't make any difference to FPI operations and that, in the end, the only effect will be to cost the company money.

That's when he broke the rules of the game and breached the Fourth Wall of Public Communications.

What is the Fourth Wall? The term come from theatre where actors on the stage are supposed to act as if the audience does not exist. In effect, the audience is replaced with a Fourth Wall which goes along with the other three walls on the left, right and back of the stage.

In the case of public communications, breaching the Fourth Wall means saying something which may be true and is clear to an objective observer but is not mentioned in order to preserve a commonly held and accepted convenient fiction.

For example, the government and opposition parties frequently ask their supporters to flood the local VOCM talk shows and the letters section of the editorial page of the Telegram. Sometimes they organize to rig the VOCM Question of the Day.

The commonly accepted fiction is that all these things accurately reflect the sentiment of the public at large. The reality is that they are frequently manipulated for political effect. The media know that and the political class know that.

But you will never hear that said or complained about in public. Breaching the communications fourth wall is in doing just that.

So how did Risley breach the wall this morning? It's simple.

Government (Rideout, Williams et al) already know that these FPI Act amendments will have a minimal, if any, effect of company operations. However, politics demands that they colour their actions as that of industry saviours. And since the Opposition has no power to influence things, all they can do to avoid irrelevancy is to present a harder line than the government.

If Risley knew how to play this communications/political game, he would have acted contritely, told the reporter how the company would comply with the law and then stop talking. That was his role to play in this little drama.

Instead, he said:

"Frankly, having more members on the board I don't think is going to change anything, other than cost the company more money."

He stated the obvious truth: that these Act amendments are effectively meaningless. But now he's now left the door open for government to claim company resistance and impose real draconian measures. These comments can come come back to haunt him.

The lesson here is that public communications is partly theatre and the players are actors on a public stage; play your role to best advantage to your side. If you respect the Fourth Wall, you can use it to your advantage to further your goals.

If you insist on breaching it you do so at your peril.


*I guess we are meant to accept that NL economics and business practices are somehow fundamentally different in principle from mainland economics and business practices but no matter.

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