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Katie Telford’s Political Communications Strategy Pays Off for Women

Katie Telford characterizes herself as a “numbers person” – and the number she keeps track of most often is how many women are in the room with her.

At every meeting – whether it is with her staff, senior bureaucrats or world leaders – Ms. Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is keeping count.

More often than not, the men outnumber the women.

Ms. Telford is working to change this – so far, she’s been pretty effective.

Recently, she packed a room in the White House full of American and Canadian women business leaders and entrepreneurs, executing a smart and bold political communications strategy that delivered not only for her boss but for U.S. President Donald Trump.

According to numerous media reports, it was Ms. Telford’s idea for the women’s round table with the two political leaders, and she sold it to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser, Jared Kushner.

And so, the United States-Canada Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders was born.

For both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump it was a win. This was their first face-to-face meeting. It could easily have gone sideways.

For Mr. Trudeau, the initiative was right on brand. Last year, he famously declared himself a “feminist” when he was honoured by Catalyst, a non-profit global organization pushing the advancement of women in business, for his efforts at improving diversity and gender equity.

He also attracted international headlines after his 2015 election victory for appointing women to half of the positions in cabinet. 

And for President Trump, who has been criticized for being misogynist, meeting with – and shown being respectful to – powerful women could help remove some of that taint. His daughter, Ivanka, one of his closest advisers and the de facto First Lady, also participated in the meeting.

Several times now, including in his recent address to the joint session of Congress, the U.S. President has talked about the success of the meeting between the American and Canadian women business leaders.

“With the help of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we have formed a council with our neighbours in Canada to help ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to the networks, markets and capital they need to start a business and live out their financial dreams,” President Trump said in his speech.

Recently, Ms. Telford, who rarely speaks in public, reflected on gender, balance and the dearth of women in the room, at an event in Toronto organized by Lean In Canada, which bills itself as a “community of professional women empowering each other to build purposeful and fulfilling careers.”

“How often are you in a room of mostly women?” asked Ms. Telford. The room that night was packed with about 200 women – and a handful of men.

She said working as the chief of staff to the Prime Minister is a privilege – and she was struck by how “male-dominated Ottawa is” when she first arrived on Parliament Hill.

Clearly, Ms. Telford is committed to advancing women’s careers, and that goes beyond simply keeping track of the gender balance in the room.

She spoke about the work that Mr. Trudeau and his team did in advance to achieve a gender-neutral cabinet. She wanted the women in the audience to know that it didn’t happen by accident. There was a deliberate plan.

It started during the leadership, she said, when Mr. Trudeau “encouraged” and “cajoled” different Canadians, who reflected the country, to run.

“And I can tell you women are not the easiest recruits,” she said.

As for staff, they are trying to achieve a balance as well. Too often, says Ms. Telford, she and her director of communications, who is also female, are the only women in the room for briefings with senior public servants and other staff.

“It is so easy for it (being outnumbered by men) to seem and to become normal,” Ms. Telford added. “It’s not normal…”

Asked about the women’s leader round table in Washington and what happens next, Ms. Telford said: “To be honest, we are trying to figure it out…”

She said the feedback has been tremendous – the PMO and the women leaders at the meeting have all heard from Canadians who want to support women entrepreneurs and businesses run by women. They want to know what more they can do.

She mused that women leaders could be used to help in the trade negotiations between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico: “There is a lot of research out there that says women bring special skills to the table, unique skills to the table when it comes to negotiating, and mediation and diplomacy. So who would be better than that at the table, than at least some of those women CEOs… talking with our American counterparts?”

She added, “We are still sorting it out…”

Hopefully, she will soon. It’s an important initiative.