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BY G. Chartier, Communications Officer, Communications and Citizen Engagement
Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Finlay
Pacific Regional Communications Manager Dennis Finlay has just completed a morning briefing for Dianne Brown, Special Advisor to the Regional Deputy Commissioner. The briefing — a daily occurrence — dealt with operational issues and a review of the media’s coverage of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
“On an average day, we may get three or four calls from the media, but on a busy day, if some incident has happened, we can get 40 or 50 calls,” he says. “Today I am working on arranging a two-part television series on drug interdiction and substance abuse programs.”
He had told a television reporter about a new “tip line,” established so that staff, visitors and volunteers can report suspicious activities at institutions.
“The reporter became interested in how we work to prevent drugs from entering our institutions and that interest has led to a two-part series on the issue.”
Speaking to reporters is something Dennis does with ease, as he himself was a professional journalist for 12 years before he began working for CSC. In 1979, his career took an unexpected turn when the paper he worked for — the Montreal Star — folded.
“I was covering Parliament Hill for the Star at the time in Ottawa,” he recalls. Once he received the bad news, he had to start looking around and exploring options with other newspapers. A friend told him that the media relations post at CSC was open.
“I signed a six-month contract and never imagined I would stay past that,” Finlay said, thinking it would be a temporary job. “After the contract ended, they asked me if I wanted to stay. I decided I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed the people, and I enjoyed the human dynamic of the Service, so I decided to stay.”
“At that time, our typical response to most questions from reporters was ‘I can’t tell you that because of the safety and good order of the institution.’ And no matter what we were asked, we hid behind that phrase,” he recalls.
Dennis recalls vividly that the system — including communications — was in a process of change. In 1977, a Parliamentary subcommittee investigating federal prisons had tabled its report, known as the MacGuigan Report. It proved to be pivotal.
“It was recommendation number 25; I remember it very well. It stated that the Correctional Service of Canada had to be open and accountable. That recommendation was taken very seriously by the CSC Commissioner at the time, Don Yeomans, and by Assistant Commissioner for Communications John Braithwaite.”
Along with others in the Communications Branch at National Headquarters and with colleagues across the country, Dennis worked to modernize the approach to media relations for CSC. As the media relations spokesman at CSC’s National Headquarters in Ottawa, Dennis played an important role in CSC’s efforts to open itself up to the Canadian public.
There was no training at that time to help CSC officials communicate effectively with the media.
“Basically, we introduced training for senior officials across the country,” Dennis says of the program he developed together with colleagues Les Shand, Linda Lee and Jack Stewart.
“It wasn’t so much how to talk to the media but why it was important to talk and that reporters were our conduit to get our message to the public. We sat down and put together a course geared specifically for the Correctional Service of Canada about how to deal with the media effectively. We had to do more than answer questions — we had to be proactive.
“When you talk to a reporter, you are not just talking to him or her. You are talking to maybe 150,000 readers, 200,000 listeners or 500,000 viewers. We had to learn how to deal with reporters and get a message across to those viewers. I travelled across the country delivering the course for about 15 years.”
From those early days many years ago, Dennis can see a great many positive changes.
“I think the Service today is a lot more accepted for its success stories than it was in the past. I think a lot of this is due to the fact that our senior staff are prepared to talk to the media, they welcome them into facilities, they know how to talk to them, they understand the importance of getting our message across.
“When we can say six out of ten offenders do not return to our correctional system, how remarkable that statistic is when you consider that offenders come to us after usually spending years living a criminal lifestyle. And for us to be able to succeed with those six out of ten and somehow help them turn their lives around in a few years — this is a remarkable story. People should understand that we do contribute to public safety by ensuring that those people who want to succeed can. And they don’t go out and create new victims.
“People should appreciate that we are a very successful Service in that way. Our dedicated staff provide very effective programs.” ♦