How'd you get that job? Samara talks to a Senior Communications Advisor to the Conservative Party

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How'd You Get That Job? Thursday, July 25, 2013 View Count = 2121

How'd you get that job? Samara talks to a Senior Communications Advisor to the Conservative Party

Yaroslav Baran is currently a partner in Ottawa’s oldest public affairs firm, following years as a senior communications advisor to the Conservative Party of Canada.  During Stephen Harper’s leadership campaign, Yaroslav  served as his communications director, and also ran the Conservative Party’s communications war room during the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal election campaigns.  In peacetime, he spent several years managing Mr. Harper’s communications department.

1. What made you want to get involved with politics?

I was in university in the mid-1990s and that was a time of immense political cynicism among the public, but also a time of immense change within politics - you had the shattering of parties and the rise of new parties. There was a lot going on and there was a lot of appetite for change and for something to happen in politics. I happened to be a young person when all that was going on and I just got gripped by it.

Actually, even a little bit farther back, there was a random mail drop and I remember getting Preston Manning’s policy book in my mailbox and grabbing it and flipping through it and I thought – every single thing in here makes sense, this is like a manifesto of common sense.  It was the zeitgeist of the time that drew me in, the need for something new to happen in politics.

2. How did you become a Communications Director? What path brought you to that specific role?

First I got involved in politics locally, so in 1993 I volunteered on a local federal campaign in my hometown of Hamilton. Then in 1997 I did the same thing. In between those two campaigns I got involved with the campus club at McMaster and that fed my political hunger between election years.

I moved to Ottawa in 1997 and for several years I had a job as a proceduralist in the Opposition Whip’s office. While I was there I became a wonk who knew all the rules and procedures of the House of Commons inside and out, and I kind of accidentally fell into communications. At that time the Director of Communications in the Opposition Leader’s office would come to me whenever something bizarre or confusing was happening in the House of Commons and he’d say, “Can you translate what’s happening so I can explain it to reporters?” So I would do that and make it something he could pass on and I became his go-to guy to simplify things that he could in turn explain to the media. Then one day he said, “Let’s cut out the middle man, can you just call these reporters back and explain what is happening in the House of Commons tonight?” So that’s how I started - at a low level calling reporters and explaining things of an esoteric procedural nature on behalf of the Director of Communications. We both realized that I happened to be pretty good at that, so in the 2000 election the same fellow hired me into the war room to work formally in the communications department. After that election he hired me in a communications role in the Opposition Leader’s office.

That job didn’t last too long, and in half a year we were launching a leadership campaign for the party. In the intervening months I happened to meet a certain gentlemen who was head of the National Citizen’s Coalition and had decided he would run for leadership of the party. I still remember the first time I met him in a mutual friend’s living room and he passed me his card and told me he needed a good strong hand to manage communications from Ottawa. He said he’d heard good things about me and asked "What do you think?" That was Stephen Harper.

3. What was your favourite moment in your position?

A favourite moment, certainly a most exciting moment, was the night that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay signed the agreement to unite their two parties (The Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance). There were just a handful of us there that evening and it was a culmination of months and months of negotiations and hard work and pure political will. It was a real political crescendo for somebody who’d given long days over years and years working towards the revival of conservatism at the federal level. On top of that it was a really bizarre event that had a whole bunch of quirks. There was a leader with a broken leg, an elevator that wasn’t working (causing one of the two leaders to get stuck between floors en route to the meeting room) and my translator in Montreal’s email crashed so we couldn’t get the French copy of the agreement. After they signed the agreement there was some champagne but we couldn’t find champagne glasses so everyone drank it out of mugs.

4. What skills or experience are required for this job?

Experience – none. Genuinely. You  don’t require any experience. Experience is what you acquire when you’re doing the job. You have to be open and willing to acquire experience but you don’t necessarily need any going in.

Skills are more obvious - good writing skills, excellent writing skills are a must. You’ve got to be an excellent writer, and a quick writer. People who thrive in political communications are people who are good and super quick. Beyond that it starts to get a bit intangible. You need to have radar for what matters and what doesn’t, what’s potentially problematic, and what isn’t. People in communications roles in politics are often at the point of triage - something happened, so is it going to hurt us or not? Something happened to the other guys, is it something we can use or is it just more noise? Having an antenna for the public mood as it relates to politics, and an antenna and understanding of what makes journalists tick is extremely important. Few people have that outside of the journalism profession itself. On the rare occasion where someone has  fast and good writing skills, an antenna for controversy and damage control and an appreciation for and ability to work with journalists, that’s your perfect combo.
I’ve seen some young people suddenly thrust into important and high profile communications positions and they just rock it because they’ve got a good instinct. Other people who have been doing this for a long time kind of end up spinning their tires because they have maybe one or two of those attributes but not all three.

5. What exactly does a Communications Director do?

That depends on the time – there are “war times” and there are “peace times” and then there are leadership campaigns. In all cases you can expect very long days, really high pressure and fewer resources than you would like to have.

During an election campaign you have to feed the media with a steady diet of reportable news, something that is interesting and worthy of becoming “news.” If you don’t then your opponents will and it’s a fight for exposure and dominance on the airwaves and newspapers of the country. In an election, everybody is competing for positive exposure and everybody is lobbing grenades at their opponents at the same time. You’ve got to manage this from a communications point of view, you’ve got to package and give your own positive news in an effective way.

As a Communications Director on a campaign you start your day at 5 a.m. and you are lucky if you go to sleep at midnight because you are constantly watching all news reports as they break and vacuuming up all newspapers in the morning. You’ve got conference call after conference call with the tour bus, checking in and letting them know the latest – what news just broke, how you’ve got it under control, what the other guys are saying and so on. You’re also constantly dealing with tons and tons of reporters, either explaining policy to them or re-contextualizing controversial topics to try to win them over. Imagine 6 weeks of that in a really pressure cooker environment.
A leadership campaign is the same thing but drawn out over 3-6 months. So it’s a good way to age a lot in a short period of time.

Running a press office is different, it’s some of the same components, but it’s slowed down. A press office follows a bit more of a normal schedule, not quite ‘nine-to-five,’ but there is a normal-ish kind of workday involved and Parliament becomes an important part of the equation. So, for example, you’re highlighting things your MPs said in the House of Commons, or interesting debates you’ve initiated and you’re also arranging communications for your caucus.

In this case you aren’t serving just one person, but dozens because every MP has their own project they want highlighted. When you’re serving these multiple interests, you’ve got to do a bit of balancing – if the leader is announcing something on one day, you don’t want competing messages, so you have to go to other MPs and ask – can we make your announcement on a different day? Everybody thinks their personal agenda is the most urgent so there is a lot of management in ensuring that things are kind of organized in sequence so you don’t have 120 caucus members competing with each other for news. Then there is all the editing and writing that goes with that and polishing things and trying to get attention from the press.

6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

It depends on where they are – if you are still in school get involved with your campus club. That will open you up to a world of politics.

If you are out of school and just trying to figure out how to get your foot in the door, the best thing you can do is volunteer for a campaign, or for an MP. Ideally try to volunteer for a central campaign - the central office in a campaign – or try to volunteer or get an internship in a press office. Get in to a position where at no cost to anybody else you, at an appropriate level, can demonstrate your abilities. Because there is such a hunger for good communicators in politics, that talent tends to get recognized and rewarded.

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