A brutal day for truth and democracy

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As a former White House correspondent, I watched this week’s news conference with President Donald Trump in complete dismay. I covered a similar news conference in the East Room in November 2010, when Barack Obama took questions the day after the Democrats got trounced in the midterms, losing control of the House of Representatives amid historical GOP gains. He was certainly visibly annoyed when asked, repeatedly, whether he was to blame. He managed not to go spectacularly off the rails in the face of those difficult questions.

What a difference eight years make.

Anyone who regularly watches the interactions between Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta, as I do, knows they are confrontational. Acosta, in my opinion, too often debates the president rather than just asking questions (and eating into the time of other reporters who have a limited amount of time to get their own queries in). News conferences are different than interviews, and so, out of respect to your fellow journalists, you generally ask your question, perhaps a challenging followup or two, and sit down. The point is to put the president’s views on the record. In the subsequent story you’re writing or the segment you’re putting together, you make mention then that the answer was dishonest or inaccurate.

Nevertheless, what happened to Acosta on Wednesday was outrageous and defamatory.

Acosta had his White House hard pass rescinded for pressing Trump on his comments about the so-called migrant caravan and refusing to hand the microphone over to a White House intern who tried to wrest it from him at Trump’s behest. He didn’t lay a finger on her. That didn’t stop the Trump White House from resorting to tactics familiar to dictators around the world: It released a doctored version of the video, made to look as though Acosta had assaulted the intern.

That’s right. The Trump administration released an altered video to support an egregious lie. It’s also a particularly preposterous falsehood -- the world can easily watch the actual footage of the interaction between Acosta and the intern that aired live.

It should rightfully result in a defamation lawsuit against the White House and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As a federal official, however, Sanders is immune from defamation claims that arise from her professional duties.

From a comms perspective, it’s hard to fathom what discussions went on behind the scenes that resulted in a “what a great idea!” consensus. Who signed off on such a Stalinist response to Jim Acosta? Regardless, it was expertly executed by Sanders, who has proven herself a skilled spin doctor and truth-bender who specializes in seemingly genuine moral indignation.

It’s nothing new that the United States is currently enduring some dark times. This Acosta debacle just underscores that the next two years, with Trump in an even angrier lather as the presidential election approaches and congressional Democrats close in on him on Russia, are going to be particularly brutal for the media, for freedom of the press -- and possibly for Americans themselves.

And will it all lead to a new style of political communications, here in Canada too, in which audacious lies are regarded as a better strategy than transparency and accountability? With our own federal election less than a year away, stay tuned.

Big Pharma's image problem

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Thanks in large part to the North American opioid crisis, Big Pharma is taking a serious reputational hit. In the U.S., there has been a surge of opioid-related lawsuits in recent months against well-known pharmaceutical companies and the leaders of those firms, as well as retail pharmacies and dispensaries.

Rightly or wrongly, consumers increasingly distrust drug companies, even as those same companies spend billions to discover and market the medications that are dramatically improving and extending our lives. Some have even compared Big Pharma’s opioid woes to Big Tobacco’s in the 1980s and ‘90s.

How can drug companies in every sector of the industry grapple with a distrustful public, especially in Canada, with its tough restrictions on drug advertising?

We believe localization is first and foremost a critical communications strategy for any pharmaceutical company. It’s crucial that firms know their specific markets, and share that knowledge with sales and marketing teams, as well as with the public when possible and appropriate. The health concerns of people in British Columbia amid wildfire season are going to be very different from those in central Canada dealing with flood-related mould issues, to name just one example. What is your company doing to understand those local issues, and to build bridges with health-care providers with specific needs and concerns based on their local circumstances? Are your firm’s country leaders visible as experts when these issues are prominently in the media?

Another challenge for Canada is American neglect. Some feel U.S. pharmaceutical companies snub their Canadian subsidiaries because Canada is such a small market relative to America’s. Canadian companies therefore receive scant marketing materials, communications strategies and crisis management help. There’s also a feeling that Americans don’t understand the Canadian health-care system and how it works.

A firm like Provident, with team members with extensive experience in Canada-U.S. relations and expertise in highly regulated industries, can provide strategic communications counsel as well as a data-based, first-hand analysis of the Canadian market. Those can then be translated into a comprehensive communications strategy or an executive visibility campaign across areas such as PR, speaking opportunities and owned thought leadership.

Big Pharma leaders who communicate openly and honestly about their industry, its aspirations and plans, and the impact that their products have on average people, stand to position themselves as thought leaders and earn what we would call a “trust premium” as a result.

Those who don’t, however, risk the inverse: Being labelled as untrustworthy, absent from the public conversation about health care and opaque to the average Canadian.

Why the Democrats taking back the House may not be good news

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Millions of Americans have cast their votes in one of the most pivotal and crucial midterm elections the country has seen in generation. And just when you thought politics south of the border couldn't get any more turbulent -- it has. In what many viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s divisive administration, be prepared for even more hyper-partisanship and gridlock as the Democrats have taken back control of the House of Representatives, while the Republicans have hung on to the Senate. While those in this country who don’t care for Trump and his policies may be cheering the Grand Old Party’s weakened position on Capitol Hill as a win for Canada, that may not be the case, and here’s why.

For starters, the recently signed NAFTA 2.0 deal, officially known as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), has yet to be ratified, and with the Democrats armed with a majority in the House, don’t expect swift passage anytime soon. In fact, it could die a slow death after 13-plus months of tense negotiations. Given how nasty these midterm campaigns have been, the newly empowered Democrats will no doubt be digging in for a long fight, and that could be bad news for Canada which, like Mexico, would like to see this new trilateral trade agreement fully ratified. Unfortunately for America’s neighbours, don’t expect House Democrats to be eager to work with their counterparts across the aisle in ratifying USMCA anytime soon. After all, there are no longer any centrist politicians in America, and the word “compromise” itself has become blasphemous to lawmakers.  

On the flip side, should the USMCA fail to be ratified, the Democratic-led House will prevent Washington from unilaterally leaving the current NAFTA deal, which is still in place today. Under U.S. law, the executive branch does not have final say in trade deals. Congress does, so any threats by Trump to scrap the decades-old deal can simply be labeled as bluster as the U.S. Constitution holds more sway than his Twitter account. While it was never expected that the Republicans would allow Trump to pull out, you can guarantee the Democrats will do everything in their power, on just about everything, to get in Trump’s way.

In Canada, it will be interesting to see how the loonie reacts to news of an even more divided America. The dollar has seen its ups and downs thanks to this unpredictable president, but as the Beltway gets even more bogged down in partisan politics, it could cause a bit of pain for the dollar, which was rather flat the day Americans went to the polls. And given the fact that the majority of Canadian oil exports go south of the border, the Democrats may not be so keen on pushing ahead with cross-border pipelines as much as Republicans were. So it’s safe to say that Big Oil on both sides of the border is holding its breath on how left-leaning this new crop of Democrats will be when it comes to energy and environmental issues.

Looking through a communications lens, you can bet Trump will be ratcheting up the rhetoric to new levels, which may or may not be surprising anymore given his penchant for shock-and-awe commentary that have left many of us numb.

We also can’t lose sight of the fact that we are less than a year away from a general election in Canada, so it will be interesting to watch how the Liberals and Conservatives respond to this shift in power. Both parties have been disciplined in their public commentary about the president, and tend to shy away from weighing in on American electoral results. But with Trump losing his Republican-controlled Congress and the USMCA hanging in the balance, that could very well change as all federal parties prepare for next October’s vote.

Not an oxymoron: How to become a cannabis thought leader

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It’s been two weeks since Canada legalized cannabis, becoming only the second nation in the world to do so. Hundreds of cannabis producers can now legally sell their products in Canada. The field is packed with competitors, including government cannabis, and the industry is also grappling with potentially bad press from the Canadian Medical Association guidelines that raise alarm bells about usage.

So how can a cannabis company stand out from a crowded field of competitors while dealing with strict marketing restrictions? And how can companies address cautionary warnings about the use of their product with respect and integrity?

Here at Provident, we know timing is everything. As the legal cannabis industry gets up and running, companies have a unique opportunity to pull away from the pack right when Canadians — and the world — are paying close attention. They can become the brand of record by providing quality product, being responsible about potential risks and getting their company’s name in the news for reasons other than the volatility of its stock price.

How so?

First and foremost, becoming a thought leader in the portion of the market you want to corner  — whether it’s medical or recreational cannabis, edibles, oils or dried flower or a combination of them all — is critical. As Canadians are confronted with conflicting headlines about cannabis, thoughtful companies can become fonts of fact and knowledge.

We’ve helped countless companies achieve this by providing top-notch content written by team members with extensive journalistic experience. In this era of fake news and fear-mongering, factual, research-based blog posts, op-eds and social media content from the scientists and medical experts you have on staff can enhance not just your reputation, but your bottom line. It can also help ease investor skittishness, and put you on the path to long-lasting success.

Megyn Kelly’s very bad week

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Another week, another high-profile news personality down in flames. This time it’s not #MeToo claiming another career; it’s actually a onetime #MeToo accuser herself, broadcaster Megyn Kelly.

While at Fox News, Kelly famously accused Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her early in her career at the network. In January 2017, she left Fox for NBC, where she was given a prime morning slot on the Today Show.

Now her show’s been cancelled at NBC, days after defending the practice of dressing up in blackface on Halloween during an on-air panel segment. Her comments resulted in a social media uproar and were greeted with dismay by her colleagues at Today, several of them African-American.

In her tearful apology the next day, the onetime lawyer said she was unaware of the shameful history of blackface and how it was used for decades to demean, degrade and dehumanize black people.

Is her formal exit from the network, expected this week and just half-way through an eye-popping $69 million contract, political correctness run amok? Did NBC act too harshly given her public apology? Or, as some have suggested, is the network simply using the incident as an excuse to fire Kelly in the face of declining viewership for Today since her arrival?

And, most importantly for us here at Provident and our clients, what lessons can we glean from what’s happened to Kelly? What would we have advised NBC and Kelly?

First and foremost, our message to NBC officials would be to know your audience. What viewers have they lost since Kelly’s hiring, and who do they want to bring back? Would firing Kelly send a powerful message that NBC values their patronage? And what about the customers, or viewers in this case, who might be lost if a company takes the drastic step to fire someone who might be considered by some as a brand ambassador?

A good communications advisory firm can help you answer those pressing questions, and quickly. By gauging public reaction and drilling deep to figure out what your customers care about -- including where they reside ideologically, financially and politically -- a savvy crisis management team can move with speed to assess what needs to be done. We suspect NBC already had internal marketing information that showed them Kelly was unpopular among the growing American demographics they and their advertisers are trying to build upon, like young people of colour.

As for Kelly? Her apology, unfortunately, couldn’t undo her history of making equally inappropriate statements on race over the course of her career at Fox. We suspect she may find herself back at Fox given her ideology seems more at home there, and Ailes has left the building, although Fox has initially suggested they don’t want her back. But for Fox News, it could prove to be a big get, given their viewers would likely sympathize with her plight, view her as a martyr and cheer her return.

But if Kelly wants to rebuild her reputation post-NBC in order to land on her feet at another mainstream broadcaster, our advice would be to dramatically rebuild her image.

A start would be to genuinely educate herself on the sensitive, simmering race issues that are nearly at full boil in the United States right now, and to try to make amends to those she’s offended over the years.

Lessons in how not to manage a crisis from the House of Saud

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Like the rest of the world, here at Provident we've found ourselves both horrified and transfixed by the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Horrified for obvious reasons. Transfixed as we watch the ultimate crisis management situation careen spectacularly off the rails.

The New York Times reported last weekend that, as international outrage mounted over the murder, the elderly King Salman sent a senior member of the House of Saud, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, to Ankara to discuss the matter with Turkey's president.

He returned, the Times reported, with grim news for the king: "It is really difficult to get out of this one."

You think?

The matter at hand is grisly, to put it mildly: the alleged ambush and dismembering of a journalist. Nevertheless, there are lessons -- on a monstrous scale -- in the chaos playing out in the House of Saud in recent weeks.

First and foremost, if someone in your firm is accused of something heinous -- stopping short of murder, we truly hope -- it's essential from the outset that there's no attempt to conceal the obvious. Changing your story several times, as the Saudis did, and then finally coming out with a fanciful explanation that defies any logic is the absolute wrong path to take.

Genuinely acknowledging from the outset of a dreadful scandal that someone in your company has done something seriously offside, and truly dealing with it and apologizing for it, is critical.

Authenticity, honesty and transparency are key when you're under the media spotlight. Telling lies that can be easily disproven will devastate your company's reputation -- and ultimately its bottom line. It may be impossible, in fact, to ever recover from gargantuan lies told to the public in an attempt to get your firm out of hot water. 

In the Khashoggi case, the Saudi government’s attempts at explaining away what happened have become as much a story as the murder itself. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who initially provided some cover for the Saudis, said this week that “the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

And to be sure, the cover story put forth by the Saudis is laughable. The latest iteration insists that Khashoggi entered the consulate in Istanbul, and, surrounded by 15 Saudi operatives, initiated a fistfight. He was then, apparently, put in a choke hold and accidentally killed, and then dismembered by a pathologist who just happened to be packing a bone saw. 

Sounds plausible! If, that is, you also believe that the moon walk was faked and the Earth is flat. 

The only correct path for King Salman is to take full responsibility for the death of Khashoggi, replace or at least temper the influence of the Crown Prince, and to provide a full accounting of exactly why and how Khashoggi was murdered, and where his remains can be found. Only then can Saudi Arabia, eager to be perceived as progressive by the West, clutch some semblance of victory out of these horrifying jaws of defeat.

And there are lessons here for all of us in the crisis management space, even if it's on a much smaller, less gruesome scale. The truth can, and will, set you free. If you find your firm in a grave crisis situation, that's a mantra that will rarely steer you wrong.

Would you rather quit, or be forced to “pursue other opportunities?”

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When companies need to quietly get rid of executives, they often get creative in how they go about it in order to save face. Whether it’s early retirement, or announcing someone has “left to pursue other opportunities,” framing an exit is incredibly important as it impacts the firm, its employees and its brand -- not to mention the executive leaving his or her post.

So when Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations unexpectedly resigned earlier this week in a move that shocked many beyond the diplomatic circles of Washington and New York, many were wondering: was she pushed out, or did she make this decision all on her own?

While there is plenty of speculation about why she abruptly jumped ship, the way the former South Carolina governor handled the situation is something we can learn from when faced with either a self-imposed exit, or one that is ultimately imposed on us.

For starters, Haley announced she would remain in her post until the end of the year. Any time an executive resigns “effective immediately” it’s sure to arouse suspicion and spark rumours. By providing lots of runway until she officially vacates her position, the situation looks like it was coordinated by both the employer and executive. A smooth transition of this sort, viewed through a communications lens, can be a win-win. The long list of senior officials that have left the West Wing in less than ideal circumstances is proof that President Trump has no problem letting the door hit them on the way out. Not so with Ambassador Haley.

What makes her departure different than others (and yes, there have been many resignations), is she leaves with her reputation intact, despite working for one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. This is partly due to Haley not always toeing the party line. For example, she once shot back at Trump who accused her of being ‘confused’ over new Russian sanctions. She’s also defended women accusing the president of sexual assault, saying they deserved to be heard.

While this is purely speculation, the timing of her exit could be strategic. With the newscycle gripped by the now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings, there’s been significant backlash to how both political parties handled the confirmation process, especially pertaining to the #MeToo movement that was very much front and centre. Even though Haley stresses she’s leaving because she needs a break, as one of the few senior women in the administration, some could interpret her departure as being influenced by these recent, turbulent events.

As we discussed a few weeks back, employees sometimes work for a boss or organization with such a toxic reputation that it can begin to impact their own. Although Haley is adamant she has no plans to run in 2020, some have speculated that if she stayed on longer, she’d be forced to follow policy directives she’s not comfortable with, which could negatively impact her image if she were to run again.

Our best guess would be that Haley’s departure was a decision she brought forward. In doing so, she has had much more control in shaping the narrative surrounding her exit. While this is much more important for executives in high-profile positions, it also serves as a lesson for junior and mid-level employees who want to ensure they are seen favourably by future employers. Just as is the case with making a great first impression, you only get one chance to depart well - don’t waste it!

Provident welcomes Lee-Anne Goodman as Senior Director, Content

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Provident Communications Inc. is pleased to announce that Lee-Anne Goodman has joined the firm as Senior Director, Content, further enhancing our ability to deliver journalism-grade content and earned media results for our clients.

Lee-Anne is an award-winning journalist who's worked in Washington, D.C., Ottawa and Toronto covering everything from the political ascent of Barack Obama during her years as White House correspondent to the fatal 2014 shooting on Canada's Parliament Hill. 

She's also a media consultant who has written speeches, op-eds, blog posts and analyses for clients ranging from former ambassadors and cabinet ministers to corporate lobbyists, human rights activists and criminal defence lawyers aiming to become thought leaders in their areas of expertise.

Lee-Anne spent many years at The Canadian Press, Canada's national multi-platform news agency, in a variety of senior reporting and leadership roles. She has also been an integral part of the success of The Conversation Canada, an online academic news publication and one of the country's most successful media startups, where she has worked as politics and business editor since its launch.

Lee-Anne will help Provident’s clients cut through the noise with strong, insight-driven content and thought leadership campaigns and strategies, in addition to helping them tell their stories in the news media.

Lee-Anne holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, where she was born and raised.

How (not) to drive your reputation into the ground: lessons from Elon Musk

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Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire behind Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal, has seen his reputation take a few significant lumps recently, following a series of big communications blunders that cost him much embarrassment and tens of millions of dollars.

To say it’s been a tough year so far for the South African would be a bit of an understatement. He accused a diver who helped rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave a pedophile. He smoked weed and drank whiskey with podcast host Joe Rogan.

And then, there was his abortive bid to take Tesla private, via a Twitter announcement.

The incident resulted in the Securities Exchange Commission bringing forward fraud charges against Musk and ordering him and Tesla to pay $20 million in fines each. The SEC stated his tweet was misleading, and caused “significant market disruption.” The admittedly exhausted founder was also forced to step down as chairman, but will remain as Tesla’s chief executive officer.

Musk’s reputation from tech-visionary-billionaire to someone who seems on the brink of having a complete breakdown offers a cautionary tale for executives who have, or want to have, a high-profile public presence.

For starters, what you say has a material impact on the company’s finances. Musk’s decision to openly speak his mind and even vent his frustrations on Twitter has caused the company’s stock to roller coaster in recent months. The day he announced his intentions to take Tesla private, the stock shot up 11%, but later sank -- before rising again a few weeks later after admitting that keeping the company public was the best option. But the ride wasn’t over just yet. The stock then dropped 9% after video of him smoking marijuana on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast went viral.

Most shareholders prefer the price of their publicly traded Tesla shares to be influenced by sales of cars and overall company performance, rather than the social media musings of its CEO. I’d be willing to bet these sort of swings irritated more than a few investors, even though for day traders who quickly jump in and out of a stock, it could have been a great opportunity to make some money.

But back to Musk. His erratic behaviour has done more than just upset the share price. It has also been attributed to senior leadership leaving Tesla. Some 41 executives have left the company this year alone, including the firm’s chief accounting officer after only a month on the job. As we wrote a few weeks ago, sometimes employees have no choice but to leave after a leader of an organization acts out of line, and it seems as though Musk’s actions have contributed to some heading for the exits.

How executives interact with the media is also incredibly important, not just to the individual’s reputation, but that of the company he or she leads. Musk has had a testy relationship with reporters, and has found himself in hot water over the past year. He lashed out at Reuters and other outlets, accusing them of publishing false, defamatory stories designed to hurt Tesla. Picking fights with the media is rarely a good idea, and the proverbial honey almost always triumphs over vinegar.

Having good relations with the press is invaluable, especially for high-profile executives. It’s also important for leaders to know the rules and guidelines for interacting with reporters. As we always stress to our clients in our media training programs, it’s a best practice to assume that all conversations with a reporter should be considered “on-the-record,” meaning the journalist is free to use the comments made in any story he or she writes. Speaking “off-the-record” or on “background” is only appropriate when it’s mutually agreed upon by both parties. Simply prefacing an email to a reporter with the words “off-the-record” doesn’t make it so. Musk learned this lesson the hard way, when he wrote one such an email to BuzzFeed. Of course, his comments were published, this time on the subject of a British rescue diver allegedly being a pedophile. That diver is now suing Musk.

Even though Musk is probably one of the world’s most famous billionaires and whatever he says is bound to generate headlines, the fact is that what happens to him can happen to anyone in a position of influence. With social media ready to massively amplify any blunder, what leaders of organizations say has a bigger impact on the bottom line than ever before.

So, how to proceed? Think before you speak. Think before you tweet. Have an issues and crisis communications plan in place if necessary. And whenever you can, be nice to the press.

Meet the new NAFTA

Following thirteen months of tense and, at times, bitter negotiations, Canada and the United States have finally agreed to a new trade pact that will replace the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

The new deal, officially titled the United States - Mexico - Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is being hailed as a political win on both sides of the border. U.S. President Donald Trump has long railed against NAFTA, claiming it had been one of the worst trade deals his country ever signed. For Trump, this is an election promise delivered that will please his base, and ease at least some of the concerns among his Republican colleagues by getting an agreement signed with Canada and Mexico ahead of the pivotal primary elections next month.  

For Trudeau, the deal has the potential to score major political points ahead of next year’s general election. Standing up to the unpopular American president will only do wonders for the prime minister who faced unprecedented personal attacks from the Trump administration. The negotiations have seriously strained relations between the two countries, and while the ink hasn’t even dried yet, it is hard to imagine that things will improve anytime soon despite assurances from Trump at a news conference today.

While both leaders are claiming victory, there are some who feel Canada gave up too much, especially with the country’s heavily protected dairy industry. American politicians and farmers have long complained about lack of access and high tariff barriers to the dairy market which is regulated through supply management. Under the new deal, Americans will get access to about 3.6% of the market, which accounts for some $20 billion to the economy. The Canadian dairy lobby, which has a lot of sway particularly in Quebec, is not happy about the new terms, claiming their interests were essentially sacrificed for the deal to go ahead.

In what may be a surprise to those who were following negotiations closely, Chapter 19, the dispute resolution clause that was a lightning rod of criticism from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer remains intact, essentially unchanged. It’s believed that the U.S. conceded this in return for greater access to Canada’s dairy market, which currently has tariffs as high as 300%, and which Trump claimed to be the deal breaker.

Meanwhile, the auto industry is breathing a sigh of relief this morning, as USMCA seems to have neutralized Trump’s threat of using national security tariffs that would see crippling 20-25% duties imposed on cars and auto parts going across the border. Had these tariffs been imposed, the impact on the Ontario auto sector would have been devastating, throwing thousands of jobs into jeopardy. While there is a new cap on the amount of Canadian-made cars and auto parts that can go south, this isn’t expected to have a major impact on the $71 billion Canada exported last year.

Unfortunately, for the steel and aluminum sectors, those 25% national security tariffs are still in place despite efforts by Canada’s trade negotiators to have them lifted. While it’s unclear how long these will remain in place, there is greater optimism that this will be resolved following the signing of USMCA.

Given we are only a few hours since the deal was announced, we have yet to see full reaction from the opposition parties here in Canada and the Democrats in the United States. Our analysis is that this deal is better than no deal, and is a win for the middle class. Prime Minister Trudeau said USMCA removes uncertainty for business and improves labour rights across North America, but stressed the deal is not done yet and must be ratified in the three countries. We’ll be keeping a close eye on these developments for all of our clients.