‘Pastagate’ PR mess prompts search for new language recipe

MONTREAL — A public-relations stew involving pasta has pushed the Quebec government to re-examine its recipe for handling alleged violations of the province’s language law.

MONTREAL — A public-relations stew involving pasta has pushed the Quebec government to re-examine its recipe for handling alleged violations of the province’s language law.

Stories about overzealous employees of the provincial language watchdog have multiplied in recent days, following the report about an Italian restaurant being reprimanded for having Italian on its menu.

The co-called Pastagate story received a whopping 60 times more news coverage outside the province than a recent trip where Premier Pauline Marois tried drumming up foreign investment in the province, according to a media-analysis company.

The government moved Monday to turn the page.

Diane De Courcy, the minister responsible for Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, announced an internal review aimed at improving the performance of the Office quebecois de la langue francaise.

“Unfortunately, the results of certain inquiries have lent themselves, with reason, to very severe criticism,” she said in a statement on Monday.

“This is not desirable, not for the businesses, not for the Office personnel, not for francophones or anglophones.”

She said her department will act quickly to see how complaints about language-law violations can be handled “without creating initial irritants.”

“Pastagate” stems from a visit by an inspector for the Office quebecois de la langue francaise to a trendy Montreal restaurant.

Buonanotte owner Massimo Lecas was told after an investigation that the menu violated Quebec’s language law and that Italian terms such as pasta had to be replaced with French-language equivalents.

The story burned up social and mainstream media and the Office relented, admitting the inspector was overzealous and should have considered a cultural exception contained in the language law.

But that story has prompted a number of other restaurants, including some famous ones, to go public with complaints about similar dealings with the OQLF.

The head of a company that does media analysis says the story about the crackdown on Buonanotte, which is popular with sports and entertainment stars as well as politicians, got significantly more coverage in out-of-province news reports than a recent trip where the premier promoted Quebec.

“Every time the media mentioned, as an example, the visit of Pauline Marois in New York, we got 60 mentions for the Pastagate,” said Jean-Francois Dumas, president of Influence Communication, when asked to compare the public-relations impact.

While most of the stories were in Canada, Pastagate was chronicled in 350 articles in 14 countries, as far away as Australia, when it broke last week.

“It’s in the traditional media,” he said of the news outlets that picked up the story.

“I mean all the newspapers, radio, TV and the web version of traditional media.”

Influence, which has been operating for 12 years, looks at coverage in 160 countries with its partners. It tracks traditional and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Dumas noted that the Pastagate coverage comes after a period of negative news out of the province that included sometimes-rowdy student protests, investigations into political corruption and lurid crime such as the case of alleged dismemberment killer Luka Rocco Magnotta.

In the same week as Pastagate grabbed headlines, the media was also abuzz with an alleged incident of police brutality in Trois-Rivieres, Que., that was apparently caught on camera and went viral, including on CNN.

It’s been a humbling few months, news-wise, he said.

“We’re not proud of Quebec right now,” he said, adding that the TV and phone-in show coverage in the rest of the country of Pastagate is “embarrassing” for Quebecers.

Dumas says the coverage probably won’t scare off investors, a belief that was echoed by Carlos Leitao, chief economist for the Laurentian Bank.

“I don’t think it has any meaningful impact on business decisions,” he said of negative coverage.

“Having said that, if it persists, if it continues, if there are several news (stories) like that, then it might start to colour some business decisions.”

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