Opinion
Mark Rendell

Lessons from the Games Fiasco

Last-minute pleas to save the Canada Winter Games project were eloquent and passionate. And much too little, too late.

On EDGE | OPINION

Robert C. McLeod threw a pretty impressive Hail Mary on Monday night. At the 11th hour, mere minutes before City Council was to vote on Yellowknife’s Canada Winter Games bid, the finance minister earnestly endorsed the Games — not on behalf of the GNWT or the legislative assembly, but as himself, Robert McLeod, future Games volunteer.

His speech — which, as you probably know by now, didn’t achieve the desired result — came after exhortations, some optimistic, some downright venomous, by a number of pro-Gamers doing their last-minute best to change the dead-set-against-it opinion council expressed the week before. It has to be said: their arguments were pretty darn convincing. For a few minutes, sitting at the media table, I half-believed council might postpone the vote to consider McLeod’s endorsement, or the compelling business case put forward by Leanne Tait: that the City was passing up the opportunity to use relatively little municipal money to leverage tens of millions from different levels of government.

The thing to ask is not should the Games campaign have bombed, but why it bombed. 

Council did not postpone. And, just as they said they would, they voted unanimously against the project.

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not council voted the right way. The Games are kaput, a not-done deal. The thing to ask is not should the Games campaign have bombed, but why it bombed. Why did Yellowknife, a city which punches above its weight when it comes to festivals, events and (some would say) civic pride, so roundly reject the Games?

Part of the equation is the dip in confidence among Yellowknifers battered by months of bad economic news. During the fall’s multiple elections, belt-tightening was a theme; then there was Snap Lake; then weeks of GNWT missives about dwindling revenues and mounting debts, aimed, it would seem, at lowering expectations ahead of what is likely to be some serious fat-cutting in the next budget.

But bad economic news doesn’t always herd folks towards austerity; with the right messaging (see the Liberals in the last federal election) people can be convinced that bad economic times call for mega-project-style deficit financing — you have to spend money to make money, as the saying goes.

A failure to communicate

The failure of the pro-Games campaign then rests in no small part on the messaging. From the beginning, there was significant miscommunication between the Canada Games Committee/City officials and the highly vocal business community. As the committee’s report noted: “Members of the committee feel constrained by an inability to actively communicate with respect to the CWG, the benefits, and the wealth of information that has been provided to committee members with respect to past Games.”

“This is the information that the business community is asking for, and we have been told we cannot provide it. Therefore, questions of the business community, as well as misperceptions by the business community and in the media go unanswered, which perpetuates mistrust and misperceptions.”

That the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce was against the Games should surprise nobody, and it’s hardly fair to chalk up their opposition entirely to misunderstanding. But the lack of information coming from pro-Gamers, the committee and the City itself allowed the Chamber to grab hold of the narrative, sending out press releases, preemptively holding votes and publicizing the results.

If those who wanted the Games had thrown themselves into the communications fray with the same vigor the Chamber used to oppose it, perhaps some hearts and minds could have been won over. Why did McLeod wait until the literal last minute to announce his full-throated support? Where were the ad campaigns from Sports North explaining the the surpluses achieved by previous games? Where were the eloquent letters to the editor saying, as Leanne Tait did just before the vote, that the Chamber of Commerce did not speak for all business owners? 

Mayor Mark and many of his staff clearly wanted the Games, yet they seemed reticent to make the pitch. Perhaps Heyck was being democratically minded, and perhaps staff had to assume a bureaucratic remove. But without a strong champion in City Hall, the project lacked any real centre to rally around.

Case study

Likewise on the media front, questions and misperceptions went unanswered, as the committee report noted. One instance in particular jumps out as a case study on how not to do media relations. When the committee's report was released, after nearly a year of work, they held a press conference, stocked with bureaucrats and grandees, to explain processes journalists had already been told about. They then refused to answer questions about the content of the report (although they budged a bit when pushed). 'Just come back tomorrow if you want to ask questions,' they said, with what seemed like a total misunderstanding of how media deadlines work. If you want to antagonize journalists and create mistrust about the narrative you are presenting, do precisely this.

Although far, far from a model of transparency, recent moves by comms people at the GNWT provide a worthwhile point of comparison. They’ve begun holding technical briefings ahead of big decisions and the release of complicated reports, making their top people available and taking the time to answer questions on numbers, methodology, rationale and the like. It’s not that journalists will necessarily be more amenable to ‘official narratives’ when they’re presented in the technical briefings; but, for the most part, we’re the avenue through which information reaches people, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure we understand the nuances of that information as best as reasonably possible.

Then there was the report itself. No doubt folks on the committee spent a huge amount of time and energy arriving at it, a civic-minded effort commendable by any measure. But in the end, councillors simply did not find the resulting product believable. There were conflicting numbers, the contingency seemed too small, the budget methodology was not contained in the report, and after having more than a year to come up with a detailed budget based on realistic assumptions about the cost of doing business in the North, the final numbers were extremely close to those projected 14 months earlier, before any of the work had even been done. There’s much to be said for citizen-sourced committees; but one can’t help wondering how different the outcome would have been if the City/committee had simply hired a consultant to conduct a professional feasibility study, and then developed a communications plan to broadcast the results.

Ultimately, we’ll never know how much fumbled messaging and communications led to Yellowknifers’ overwhelmingly negative view of the Games, and how much can be attributed simply to hard times a-comin’. But hearing councillors dolefully explain the amount of negative correspondence they received, before their unanimous vote against the Games, it’s hard not to think there was a hearts-and-minds campaign that was lost, spectacularly, over the last year.