Selling Government: The Evolution of Government Public Relations In Alberta From 1971-2006

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Kiss, Simon
Alberta , Political Communication , Government Communications
The public relations practices of the government of Alberta have elicited substantial controversy, particularly under the administration of Premier Klein. However existing analyses have been insufficiently comparative. This dissertation is a within-case comparison of the evolution of government public relations practices under the three Progressive Conservative administrations of Premiers Lougheed, Getty and Klein. The theoretical framework rejects democratic justifications for government public relations, but accepts an “administrative imperative” that recognizes the use of government public relations techniques to accomplish particular policy goals. At the same time, it recognizes that these practices are often linked to important transformations in the broader political economy. A model of incentives and opportunities of why politicians use public relations strategies to accomplish their goals is introduced to examine the particular evolution in the Alberta case. Premier Lougheed’s administration created a new public relations agency dedicated to improving the administrative efficiency of the government’s public relations function. It was marked by restrained forms of government advertising and a documented commitment to a distinct space for government public relations, insulated from the political demands of the elected level of government. Periodic television appearances by the premier appear to be the most aggressive forms of public relations activities. Premier Getty adopted this model, despite a substantially transformed political environment and despite documented advice to change his government’s practices. Premier Klein recognized this transformed political landscape and substantially reformed government public relations, increasing public opinion research, adopting manipulative and aggressive news management tactics, politicizing and centralizing the public relations staff and integrating the entire range of public relations techniques into regular politically contentious advertising campaigns. These reforms help to explain some of Premier Klein’s political and policy successes. The dissertation concludes with some of the deleterious consequences of extensive public relations practices by governments in Canada and some recommendations as to how to mitigate against those consequences.
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