Finding the message - how one word in a news release can distract from the message

A few weeks ago, the McMaster Students Union put a news release supporting the construction of a light-rail line between the university and Stoney Creek. The release has caused a stir in Hamilton for many reasons.

Most importantly, to me at least, is this reflects a sea change in position for the McMaster Students Union politicians – they’ve been opposing transit improvement during the previous two MSU administrations. (For this reason, a large petition signed this spring calling for direct weekend bus service to a large shopping area offering students opportunities for employment was effectively ignored by city hall.)

This reality was initially lost based on the closing sentence of the opening paragraph: “The McMaster Students Union (MSU) has announced their unilateral support for a light rail transit (LRT) system to be constructed as quickly as possible.”

The “unilateral” had many people in the community shaking their heads and dismissing the release. “Unilateral” implies there is some sort of opposition – there is none to be had.

Luckily, a few people noted another major difference from previous MSU communications. The vp finance was not referred to as the “Chief Financial Officer” and there was none of the usual display of ridiculous titles that is all too common for people at the MSU to give themselves. (The president is the “Chief Executive Officer” and the vp admin is the “Chief Administrative Officer.”)

This impressed a few people who really did not like the vp finance of two years ago who loved going around telling people how he was the CFO of a multi-million dollar corporation. (Most people rolled their eyes, I remember him using that line at a public meeting and people laughing – it was quite the scene.)

About a week after the release went out, transit advocates in the city started discussing the need for improved transit service to McMaster on the weekend. Suddenly, that petition that was so easily dismissed in the spring is now being paid attention to at city hall.

One thing the MSU release could not state which should be part of their behind-the-scenes lobbying is that an LRT between McMaster and downtown Hamilton could be operational in time for a summer 2011 opening if the political win and money flows from the provincial government.

2011 is significant, the McGuinty Liberal government is facing an election that year and will need photo-ops to prove their transit plans are more than talk. Hamilton will be a target for the Liberals with the potential of picking up one seat and the need to defend two seats. Governments of all stripes are usually loose with the purse strings when pre-election publicity is involved.

(It should be noted that the MSU replaced their original news release after realizing the problem with their original release.)