Craig Jackson Talks

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...about move to government PR - and back to journalism

Some months ago, I wrote extensively about journalists who leave their profession to work in public relations, and the reasons why.

Today, we meet someone who crossed over', took a good, long look around, then scrambled back to journalism.

Craig Jackson's story is well-known in local journalism circles. In April 1999, he left his position as reporter with The Telegram to work as communications director for Ed Byrne, who was then PC party leader, when they were the official Opposition. He returned to journalism more than a year later, in the fall of 2000.

Jackson agreed to talk to me on the record about his experience, his only holdback being a refusal to talk about confidential matters related to his work. It's the first time Jackson has spoken publicly about his dalliance in public relations.

"I think it's important to understand that I didn't leave for money," Jackson said. "Money had absolutely zero to do with it. I was looking for change at the time. I was in a motor vehicle accident around that time, and was just after getting back to work in March of 1999. I was covering the House of Assembly for The Telegram, and I think I wanted a change from the legislature."

At the time, then-managing editor Brett Loney said he didn't want to move Jackson, and thought he was best utilized in the legislature.

"I was just after getting back to work, after coming back from the car accident," Jackson said. "Ed Byrne called, and it was the third call from him we graduated from high school in the same year so I knew him. It was more of a change for me. It had nothing to do with dollars."

After talking it over with his family, he made the decision to move into political public relations. "My family wasn't excited about it, because of the instability of working in a political environment My father and mother were dead set against me taking that job. My father, an old Liberal, was especially opposed. My brother Fred said I shouldn't, even my friends but I went with my own judgment. I have no regrets, but I wish I knew then what I know now, so that I could make a better informed decision."

Jackson said he soon discovered that government public relations was "a different world" and was not his "cup of tea."

"The job itself was easy to do, it wasn't a problem," he said. "But you come from a journalistic environment, where you are all high and mighty about ethics, code of conduct, professionalism, being straightforward with people and always thinking that you should tell the truth.

"Well, we all know that politics is a smoke and mirrors game," he continued. "Therefore, I quickly, quickly found out that, okay, I can't beat the political drum. I was far from the biggest Tory in the world had voted for every political party there ever was but I couldn't beat the political drums in the back rooms. I couldn't be centre stage at a news conference. It just was not me. My job, I felt, was to respond to reporters, their requests for interviews, their concerns, whatever, and deal with them. But there was a political side to that job, and that is not what I was cut out for, at the time."

Jackson said he felt conflicted by the political game.

"Your job in PR is not necessarily to tell a lie," he said. "I would never tell a lie, and that was one of my biggest problems. But the job was to help a politician skate around or through an issue. There were times when I would sit back and say, Okay, we have an issue and there is a reporter asking this question. Let's deal with this issue in the best way politically for that person.' But I found that the politician wasn't always quite willing to offer up all of the answers They wanted to skirt around issues more than a reporter would. A reporter would want to deal with them head-on."

Jackson said that any good news reporter can pinpoint exactly where a reporter's line of questioning will go on any issue, and used this knowledge to walk politicians through the mine fields that lay ahead.

"My problem was that politicians were not always ready to speak about what should be said to the public, and discuss it openly," he said. "It was always, Let's do this in dribs and drabs, and piecemeal the issue' For me, personally, that was a problem I had. I was too much of a straight shooter. I couldn't play games with the media. If someone had an issue to bring to a politician, I was the mediator in between, and I would say, Answer the questions. Just answer the questions. Deal with it.' I found out early that, while some politicians were direct, many others either weren't in tune with an issue didn't know enough to talk about it or just wanted to put out what was appropriate to them. That's where the problem was for me. I was like, No, you deal with the issues, you cover it now.'"

Another issue for Jackson was having to conform with the political platform of the party.

"Being in PR, you may not necessarily agree with every platform and policy that was put out there by that particular group. Therefore, you are constantly always thinking, Okay, we have to brief an MHA on how to respond when being questioned by the media' and what I found troublesome was they all had to stick to their script, because here is what the policy or platform said.' But what I think is appropriate and what is in the platform may not be the same thing. That caused problems for me too."

Were it not for his media experience, Jackson said, he might well have been able to adjust to the new political reality.

"The biggest obstacle for me, without any question, was adapting to the politics. That wasn't me. It was more about the issues for me. However, in politics, it's more about smoke and mirrors, and perceptions. I was more about reality and dealing with the facts."

Jackson can recall numerous meetings in the boardroom of the Conservative Opposition office, on the 5th floor of Confederation Building, discussing questions for Question Period and positions on issues of the day.

"I'd sit there and listen to all those political-type people passing comment, and many a time I would say, God, they have to get outside the building every now and again to see what the public are thinking!' Many a time, the leader, Ed Byrne would come to me and say, Okay, we just spent all that time discussing the issue. What do you think?' I would always tell him what I believed, that they were paying lip service to the issue, that is not how the public sees it, and this is how we should approach it. I would say, the vast majority of times, Ed Byrne went with his conscience, and what was right for the people, and not what his political masters wanted him to do. I think, in the end, he could see where I was coming from, speaking honestly of an issue."

Jackson disputes the idea that government communications people are somehow independent of the party, or not political.

"Even though they are hired by the Public Service Commission, the problem is they still serve political masters," he said. "Let's face it, they have to follow the policy set down by the governing party Let's call a spade a spade. The PR person is very close with the senior bureaucrats within the department, and very close with the minister."

Jackson thinks that "many journalists" would have difficulty adapting to the political environment, then hastens to add that not all do, "because there are a good few in there right now."

"I think for me, in the end, I realized and the Tory office of the day realized that things weren't clicking between us. As my barber always said to me, Don't regret what you do in life, regret what you don't do.' And that is so true. If I had my time back, and my eyes were open more, I would have given more serious consideration before jumping into the political environment, as a public relations officer. But I don't regret what I did because it was a great experience. It's something that I will carry with me for a lifetime. I know how they think inside Confederation Building now, and how they react to situations. I've seen it all. I can almost script it on a daily basis. It's laughable sometimes because I know how they're going to react on issues circling the wagon, that sort of thing."

Fortunately for Jackson, there was still a job for him at The Telegram when he realized his mistake.

"I think the management at The Telegram realized where my head was (when I left). I was always a journalist and party affiliation meant nothing to me The Telegram realized that I wasn't tainted, and people who knew me in the media business realized too, that I wasn't cut out for political life and was a journalist at heart. That's where it went for me, and that's where I am today back home."

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