Category Archives: Politics

The Conservative Government, Image Repair & the F-35 Crisis

It’s been a very bad week for the Harper government and it’s likely to get worse.

The release of the Auditor-General’s Spring 2012 Report last Tuesday contained explosive allegations that senior Department of National Defence (DND) officials flouted government rules, misled ministers and Parliament, and concealed cost overruns to ensure the military would receive the F-35 jet fighters it wanted. And it suggested that senior government officials likely played along.

In his assessment of the A-G report, Ottawa University defence policy expert Phillipe Lagassé explains that DND officials intentionally underestimated the cost of the F-35, embellished the possible industrial benefits associated with its acquisition, failed to analyze the risks involved in the deal, and did not provide adequate evidence to support the sole-sourced acquisition of the stealth fighters. The A-G also reported a $10 billion gap between what the government publicly communicated the program cost would be (first $9B and then $14.7B) and what it’s own internal estimates, and working figures, revealed (at least $25B). This was a gap the A-G suggests the government may have whitewashed: “That $25 billion number was something I think that at that time was known to government…It would have been primarily members of the executive.” Or as Lagassé put it more directly: “although DND and the Chief of the Air Staff are identified as the main culprits in this saga, there is no question that Conservative ministers are also to blame.”

One of the factors which led to the May 2011 federal election was the government’s refusal to present a full costing of the F-35 program, among other major spending commitments, in addition to details about the procurement process. When the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Kevin Page, released his own report in March 2011, pegging the cost of the stealth jet program closer to $30-billion (over 30 years), he came under fire from the ruling party. Conservative MP Laurie Hawn challenged the report’s methodology and dismissed the PBO’s data as “speculative” and “illogical”, an argumentative strategy advanced by other government and party spokespeople at the time. When the issue was raised during the election, the Prime Minister claimed repeatedly that the program would cost roughly $15-billion and even dismissed Pentagon data putting the per-jet cost at more than double official estimates.

The PBO and A-G reports raise serious allegations of mismanagement and pose a significant communications problem for the government. Neither Page nor Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General, have a partisan axe to grind. Both are Conservative appointees, and the latter holds one of the highest profile and most respected public offices in the land. The government cannot dismiss their allegations of fiscal mismanagement and obfuscation as mere politics. The A-G report in particular, and the fallout that we are now beginning to observe, deals a serious blow to the Conservatives’ carefully and (arguably) effectively crafted image of itself as the party of fiscal prudence, competent administration, ethics, and transparency.

The Harper government is now fully engaged in a crisis management exercise that began more than a year ago. William Benoit, a communications professor at Ohio University who specializes in political campaigns and crisis communication, presents a theory of image repair which describes five general strategies an organization (government or corporation) will use to manage the damage to its reputation after it has committed or been accused of wrongdoing. The theory is both analytical and prescriptive–we can use it to make sense of a strategy or as a guideline for developing strategic options. Benoit argues that it’s not reasonable to form a negative impression of an organization unless the organization is believed to be responsible for the offense it is alleged to have committed. Responsibility can take many forms: an organization can be blamed for acts it has directly performed, ordered, or facilitated. Responsibility can also appear as a result of acts of omission, such as the failure to properly prevent something bad from happening, or of looking the other way and permitting that event to occur.

Ultimately, when it comes to responsibility and blame, perceptions are more important than reality. Thus, it may not matter whether the Conservatives actively misled Parliament and Canadians about the cost of the F-35 program, whether they were manipulated by DND officials,  or whether they were complicit in allowing the latter to game the procurement process. What matters is whether Canadians believe they are guilty of wrongdoing. The government’s image and reputation is highly vulnerable and at risk.

Benoit’s theory of image repair allows us to ask and answer: what can a government or corporation say when they have committed wrongdoing or face the perception that they are guilty of wrongdoing? He suggests that in managing a real or potential threat to its image, organizations will deny the existence of the crisis, evade responsibility, seek to reduce its offensiveness, offer corrective action, and/or apologize and seek forgiveness.

The’ response to the F-35 crisis suggests both an awareness of Benoit’s theory and an application of some of its key components:

Denial: there are two possible tactics for denying the existence of a crisis. Simple denial involves the refusal to acknowledge that something bad has happened, whereas blame displacement involves accusing others of having committed the act. The refusal to accept the PBO’s $30-billion price tag and to deny allegations of a multi-billion dollar program cost gap was the first step in the managing the threat to its image of sound fiscal management.  A variation on this strategy of denial would be to suggest that blame for the differences in cost projections should be rest at the feet of senior DND officials, although the government has not pursued this line of argument and defence.

Reduce Offensiveness: facing allegations of wrongdoing, organizations can stress the benefits of their actions, minimize the seriousness of their actions, differentiate their harmful actions from even more serious ones, argue that there are more important considerations to account for, reduce the credibility of their attacker, or offer to compensate or reimburse those who have been harmed. The government has clearly pursued this line of image defense in three key ways:

1. It has repeatedly defended the purchase of F-35 stealth jets as the best equipment for Canada’s military, an argument it’s pursued since 2010 when the cost of the program first surfaced as a major problem;

2. It has dismissed the seriousness of the allegations by describing the $10 billion cost gap as a simple difference in accounting. Key to this tactic has been the mobilization of third party support, from academics to former defence department officials;

3. It has claimed that no jets have yet been purchased and, in contrast to the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the government has not yet misspent public money

Corrective Action: the key characteristic of this image repair strategy is to present a plan that will solve or prevent the recurrence of the problem from happening again in the future. The Conservatives were quick to respond to the A-G report by accepting its conclusions and acknowledging the importance of improving transparency in the procurement process by promising a complete and public review of the program, and setting up a new secretariat inside of the Department of Public Works to oversee the project. More serious corrective actions might involve changes in personnel, including demoting the Minister or senior DND officials. However these steps would indicate that the government acknowledges the seriousness of the offense it is alleged to have committed and an admission of culpability or guilt. Neither of those options appears tenable at the moment; yet, as more information comes to light, including a clearer sense of how Canadians are responding to the crisis, this could change.

The Harper government has 3 years remaining in its majority mandate so isn’t vulnerable to an imminent collapse. Nevertheless, the long term implications for the Conservative image and brand are significant. The government has spent several years framing itself as trustworthy, competent fiscal managers who exercise sound governance and are committed to ethics. The allegations contained in the A-G report (and suggested in the PBO report before it) strike at the heart of that image and suggest a serious failure in regulation, oversight and transparency. Images, brands, and reputations are only ever virtual, which is why the Conservatives have also acquired a reputation (with equal amount of resonance) for secrecy, information control and evasive spin doctoring. Language and rhetoric, both in terms of how images are attacked and how they are managed, once they’ve been damaged, are crucial, particularly in times of crisis. The full implications of the F-35 scandal remain unclear, and will continue to take shape in the coming days and weeks as all sides engage in a battle over its framing. The Conservatives are likely to keep the debate focused on the issue of total cost, where they can continue to emphasize differences in budgeting formulae; the opposition are likely to remain focused on questions about the procurement process, and why the government appears to have been cagey with Canadians over the numbers it shared publicly against those it used privately. However the debate unfolds, there should be no question that the government is on the ropes, that it has taken a significant reputation hit, and is bringing the full force of its crisis communications capacity to the situation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian Politics, Crisis Communication, Political Communication, Politics, Public Relations

The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology: Digital Democracy and the Information State

Two recent stories about the Conservative government’s approach to digital media are worthy of mention and reflection.

Story 1: The federal government wants to be your Facebook friend and connect with you on Twitter. As Treasury Board president and power Tweeter Tony Clement argues, “To use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens, to communicate rapidly and directly with our employees and the Canadian public is a challenge, but it is big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government.”

Canadians are spending more of their time online: here we swap recipes, upload pictures, plan parties, gossip, and, yes, even talk about politics and policy. The idea of the federal government connecting in the social mediascape with Canadians seems both legitimate and progressive because it potentially promotes greater transparency and accountability, and invites more Canadians to talk back to their government. As open government advocates argue, there’s no question social technologies can be used in democratically progressive ways, and may help enhance the quality of civic discourse and mitigate the governance gap between politicians and citizens.

Story 2: In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities. Despite protest from ordinary Canadians and advocacy groups, lawyers, provincial privacy watchdogs, as well as the federal government’s own appointed privacy and surveillance advocate, Jennifer Stoddart, the Conservatives refuse to even talk about (let alone consider) measures or modifications that would smooth out the most egregious aspects of the legislation.

[On the Conservative’s new copyright legislation (Bill C-11), see my colleague Dwayne Winseck’s recent column in the Globe & Mail. It raises numerous critical observations which point to interesting connections between these areas of legislation and their implications for digital media, surveillance and privacy.]

These stories are illuminating in their own right but far more interesting when taken together because they reveal the Janus-faced nature of digital media as well as government policy as it relates to new technology. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With two faces looking in opposite directions, he was at once peering into the past while gazing to the future.

So much public discourse about digital technology reflects the belief–widely shared by academics, journalists, open government advocates, and politicians like Minister Clement (at least publicly)–that given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable and will flourish. It’s hard not to be taken in by the seductive nature of this claim; indeed there is a case to be made for the relationship between access, information flow and democratization.

At the same time, we can’t consider the democratic potential of digital media without addressing questions of governance and regulation. If we assume that the Internet will only function in the service of democracy, we not only risk operating with what Evgeny Morozov calls a “voluntary intellectual handicap”, we also run the risk undermining our own attempts to create a more robust polity and democracy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Social Media, Surveillance, Technology

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma


If a fight breaks out, watch the crowd…Private conflicts are taken into the public arena precisely because someone wants to make certain that the power ratio among the private interests shall not prevail.

— E.E. Schattschneider

In The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider makes two key points about contentious politics: first, that the salience of an issue or problem has less to do with its objective properties than with a political process; and second, that individuals who stand on the sidelines of conflicts—the bystanders—play an important role, through their action or inaction, in determining its shape and outcomes.

Schattschneider’s insights about the importance of conflict expansion are valuable and help inform our understanding about the characteristics and mobilization dilemmas of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., as well as Canada where it has expanded to numerous cities. Not only can bystanders who become engaged in political conflicts increase or reduce the likelihood of ameliorative action; supporters and participants can also become disengaged if they aren’t sufficiently motivated.

This mobilization dilemma is, at its root, a problem of communication and is one the Occupy movement now faces both as it matures and develops a sense of its own identity, but also as it begins to fade from news headlines, as media coverage focuses more on themes of inconvenience and violence and less on the protest issues itself, and as the reality of an approaching winter challenges the protesters’ resilience. Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, which set the Occupy movement into motion, puts it this way: “The original magic of some of those general assemblies is wearing a little thin in some — though not all — places. And winter is coming. People are wondering whether they want to hang around for three hours talking about protocol.” If the Occupy protesters intend to make inroads toward achieving a restructuring of political and economic life, it will need to confront this mobilization dilemma head on. This is particularly important in Canada where the levels of movement participation is lower overall.

Structural Strain and the “Problem Load” of Social Issues

There are many reasons people become involved in social movements. A traditional view sees social movements as arising as an adaptive response to problems of political, economic or moral order: the material conditions in a society may become so problematic and dysfunctional that people feel compelled to organize and commit energy, time, emotions, money, and other resources to voicing their discontent and demanding that something be done.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reports that since the late 1970s the income share of Canada’s wealthiest 1% has doubled, while the share of income for the bottom 80% of Canadian families with children is smaller today than a generation ago. Consumer debt continues to rise in Canada placing individual and family security at risk; and levels of child poverty (particularly among Aboriginal children) remains intolerably high. For the Occupy movement, these and related material indicators are evidence of a deeply rooted problem of structural inequality, caused, in their view, by a general adherence across all levels of government to an ideology and policy framework associated with neo-liberalism.

Andrew Coyne, CBC commentator and national editor of Maclean’s magazine, takes issue with these claims. He notes how the collapse of the housing market in the U.S., which left millions with homes worth less than their mortgages, the actions of a morally questionable financial sector, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and declining or stagnant levels of social mobility and income growth, simply don’t reflect the Canadian experience. In contrast, Coyne argues, Canadians have not witnessed an “epidemic of mortgage failures,” unemployment has been falling, not rising, and official measures of poverty show signs of encouragement. He accuses Canada’s Occupy movement of engaging in a “phony class war” that, in his words, has more to do with “envy” than structural strain.

Are the material conditions sufficient in themselves to motivate or sustain collective action? For Canadians, the answer depends in part on whether you believe the CCPA or Coyne’s argument. But I want to argue here that this may be the wrong question to ask. Starting with Schattschneider, a whole tradition of research in political communication has shown that the “objective problem load” of any given issue (global warming, homelessness, the risk of infectious disease, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is insufficient in itself for explaining why some problems achieve widespread recognition when others do not, or why governments respond to some issues but ignore others. What matters, this research argues, is the existence of a plausible definition of a problem, the development of a clear and distinctive policy image, and the ability to mobilize support for an agenda of change.

Framing and Mobilization

To be successful, social movements have to package or frame their grievances in ways that resonate with the values, identities and ideological interests of all kinds of bystanders: individuals, groups with shared concerns, journalists, academics and other observers. What sociologists call “framing contests” are essentially battles between competing interests over how to establish and anchor meaning about complex or uncertain problems or events—often, framing battles occur between social movements and their opponents in the corporate sector. The case of the global anti-sweatshop movement and its campaign against Nike is a good example. But framing battles also occur between activist groups who occupy competing positions within a social movement. Robert Benford’s study of the nuclear disarmament movement illustrates how movements can experience schismatic ideological struggles over the identification of a problem and the promotion of best solutions.

In either case, the objective in framing contests is to ensure that your group’s definition of the situation not only prevails in terms of influencing how others talk; it’s to also ensure that your frame prevails to the extent that others will begin to organize their activities and/or carry out their activities and work in ways that are congruent with that frame (this is a double-process Martaan Hajer refers to as discourse structuration and discourse institutionalization).

Social scientists normally talk about framing in relation to how media cover issues and events, how activists attempt to influence the media, policy and public agendas, and of the interactions between them. Journalists frame our understanding of social and political life by emphasizing the importance of certain events, of privileging the voices of some sources and downplaying the perspectives of others, and of spotlighting certain causes and consequences for why something has become worthy of attention. Social activists attempt to influence media coverage, and thus public opinion, by framing the problem in ways that establish clear definitions about what’s wrong, who’s to blame and what should be done. There’s no guarantee, of course, that media or activist frames will ever determine how readers, listeners or viewers comprehend or understand the issue.

The Occupy Movement’s Mobilization Dilemma

Through a commitment to deliberative discourse, the Occupy movement has established the importance of dialogue and consensus-based decision-making. It is not an established movement with clear roots or a clear identity; rather, it emerged more spontaneously out of a shared sense of grievance and frustration about the undue and dangerous influence of corporate interests over politics and policymaking. The movement is best described as emergent—every day it assumes a new form and expresses new grievances and claims. The general refusal of movement participants to identify (or identify with) clear leaders or even express focused demands is refreshing when considered against the highly professionalized and packaged presence of many contemporary activist groups.

Furthermore, this unclear sense of what the movement is and what it wants to see done has been a source of frustration for establishment media, which operates according to a set of normative practices in which stories contain clear beginnings, middles and ends, and where movement objectives and goals are often attached to charismatic figures. A U.S. activist quoted in the New York Times explains how “demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.” The Occupy movement’s commitment to a slow and intentionally deliberative process of decision-making in each of its local contexts is designed to expand movement participation by bringing disparate interests and groups into the fold. This form of movement activism speaks not just to the diffused interests and priorities of its multiple participants but also to the ways in which they are stitched together (increasingly) by fragmented and decentralized social networks.

The Occupy movement’s commitment to deliberation and general unwillingness or inability to express a core set of demands has consequences, however. The movement may have an asymmetrical and ambivalent relationship with establishment media, but it’s a relationship it must continue to nurture because the volume and tone of news attention remains fundamental to perceptions of movement success. We may have moved into a new period of media-movement relations in which social platforms like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook provide new opportunities for advocates and activists to build and maintain communities of support and to bypass the traditional media filter. But activists ignore the establishment media, with its broader reach and impact not only on traditional policymaking, but also on the very substance of social media chatter, at their peril.

As the Occupy movement develops, activists will face the challenge of refreshing their grievances and messages: not only to show that they remain relevant and worthy of continuing media attention, but that they can also attract new participants and sustain membership and commitment over the long term. Commitment fatigue is a problem all movements face—in the case of the Occupy movement, this fatigue may settle in when supporters fail to see evidence of potential or actual progress, and either drop out of the movement altogether or move on to other issues and campaigns. This will be a true test of its resilience in a society that is so thoroughly saturated by competing issues and problems, dilemmas and distractions.

The State of Public Opinion: What Next for the Occupy Movement?

In the U.S., a convincing majority of Americans are angry and resentful toward Wall Street. A TIME/Abt SRBI poll of “likely voters” conducted on October 9 and 10 showed:

  • 54% of respondents have a positive view of the protest movement, well above the 23% who view the Occupy movement negatively
  • 80% of respondents agree that wealth disparity in the U.S. is too large while 68% agree that the rich should pay more taxes
  • 56% of all respondents predict the Occupy movement will have little impact on public policy

This should be a sign of good news for the movement. There’s lots of public anger about the central “problem” established by the movement (corporate greed, structural inequality, etc.) and a majority of respondents view the movement favourably.

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted on October 14-16 shows similar levels of public outrage and condemnation with Wall Street.

  • 80% of respondents agree that bankers are greedy
  • 77% say bankers are overpaid
  • Roughly 60% agree they’re dishonest

Yet, despite these high levels of distrust, support for the Occupy movement appears to be waning, or at the very least levelling off. Where 54% of TIME poll respondents held favourable views of the movement, only 32% of respondents to the CNN poll a week later said the same. And negative views were 6 points higher, from 23% to 29%. Although these are different polls conducted by different organizations, the significant change in favourability figures offer a snapshot of possible shifts in public opinion.

There have not been similar polls conducted in Canada to identify the existence of any trends. However, a just released Abacus survey (conducted between October 19 and 21) offers valuable insight into the current state of Canadian public opinion its implications for the Occupy movement here.

The data are rich and I draw attention to just a few national highlights:

  • 81% agree that “large corporations and the rich have too much influence on public policy and government in Canada” and the same number agree that the “gap between the rich and poor in Canada has grown too large”
  • 64% agree with the statement that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy, compared to only 14% who disagree
  • 41% of respondents hold a positive view of the Occupy protests, while 22% view the movement negatively

Perhaps the most significant, if disheartening, finding:

  • Despite strong support for the Occupy movement’s raison d’être, 60% believe the movement will have no impact on Canadian politics, while only 18% believe it will spur positive political change

The Abacus data do not tell us why so many Canadians (like Americans) express support for the  Occupy protests yet conclude they are unlikely to produce meaningful results. Some critics will argue that media mistreatment of the Occupy movement may be to blame, citing patterns of misrepresentation and the maligning of movement goals. They point to high profile examples where establishment media have mocked or otherwise dismissed the arguments and objectives of the movement as the reasons for why more people might not be getting involved, or why respondents are likely to dismiss the movement’s efficacy (meanwhile, in the U.S., in a campaign to delegitimize the protests, conservative critics are taking aim at establishment journalists—questioning their objectivity and branding them “professional cheerleaders). Others will conclude that this general sense of ambivalence about the potential of the movement to achieve success reflects a wider-held sense of political apathy and malaise.

The [Occupy] movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences.

George Lakoff

Regardless of the cause, these numbers should be a source of concern for the Occupy movement and its supporters. If there is to be a more fair distribution of wealth and opportunity, and meaningful efforts by governments everywhere to tackle structural inequality (in its multiple forms), this is going to require tangible changes to public policy. Yet, such changes do not happen on their own, on the basis of hopeful thinking, in light of claims to a superior moral vision, or simply because problems are real and can be measured objectively. Such change will require a commitment to translating widely shared grievances that something is fundamentally wrong into concrete demands and practical solutions that can be framed in ways that appeal not only to a committed core of movement adherents (who need to remain energized and motivated), but to policymakers who are in a position to act, and, crucially, to those individuals and groups who may yet become mobilized into action.

5 Comments

Filed under Activism, Occupy Canada, Occupy Wall Street, Politics, Public Relations, Social Movements

Political Image and the Canadian English-Language Debate

Although we are now fully into the third week of the federal election campaign, a majority of Canadians will not have begun to take full notice until last night’s English-language leaders’ debate. Sparring on a set that looked like a throwback to a 1970s game show, the leaders of Canada’s three federalist parties, plus separatist leader Gilles Duceppe, exchanged barbs on a range of issues: crime control, multiculturalism, the economy and tax cuts, health care and governance.

Following the debate, each party’s war room went into full spin mode in an effort to declare their leader the winner and to set the post-debate news agenda; news networks provided nonstop analysis and reporting; and the social mediascape was abuzz, with voters, pundits and journalists offering up their favourite quotes, commentary and predictions about the next day’s headlines.

Despite the range of issues which animated the event, voters who tuned in looking for a thoughtful debate about policy will have come away disappointed. Although each party’s general position on the aforementioned issues were on display, these were mostly reduced to well-rehearsed sound-bytes designed to influence the post-debate news cycle. What’s more, several major issues were virtually ignored: climate change, telecommunications reform and Canada’s digital strategy, the aging workforce, and crumbling public infrastructure, to name just a few.

In fairness to the leaders, however, televised debates are really less about policy than performance: it’s no wonder, then, that in the aftermath of the event the news media discussion has focused more on assessing the leaders’ image than the substance of their argument or vision for Canada. Cynics and critics lament the attention paid by parties, the media, pollsters, the punditocracy, and even voters to image politics: a politician’s charm, clothing, communication skills and charisma, high-minded observers argue, should not count for more than the solutions he or she has for dealing with the wicked policy problems of our time.

In my co-edited book, Communication in Question, public relations consultant Bernie Gauthier argues that normative criticisms like this betray an understanding of image and the role it plays in political campaigns. Bernie draws theoretically from the work of the political scientist Samuel Popkin, whose book, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns, examines the cognitive shortcuts citizens take in order to arrive at reasoned choices. Popkin argues that rather than trying to learn something specific about a candidate or party’s policy position, voters exercise “low information rationality” in order to make assessments about competence on the basis of characteristics we might otherwise dismiss as mere packaging: how they handle pressure, respond to attack and appeal to sentiment.

With the advent of television, political speech has shifted from the use of formal techniques to a more conversational mode of address that’s designed for the intimacy of the living room. With this in mind, the prime minister’s stylistic performance was strong and from my perspective he appeared to be the best coached leader for the event. Knowing he’d face three skilled debaters looking to knock him off balance, Angry Steve didn’t come out to play — instead, we saw a PM who remained calm and composed, who never got rattled, never broke a sweat and whose tone of voice remained even throughout the debate. Harper knew precisely where his camera was located and effectively spoke to it, and thus directly to Canadians watching at home. Nothing the prime minister said will have swayed left leaning voters to give him their support. But he also did not commit the mistakes of classic debate losers that would see major bleeding to other parties. Notwithstanding Harper’s record in government and his campaign gaffes and problems, in the debate he was neither contentious or histrionic.

Most of the media attention in the build-up to the debate (and since) focused on how the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, would fare in his first televised leadership contest. Overall, he did reasonably well. Although he stumbled on a few occasions, he clearly found his stride when addressing governance and international issues. In response to Mr. Harper’s appeal for a majority mandate, Ignatieff responded: “you don’t deserve the trust of the Canadian people because you don’t trust the Canadian people.” When Mr. Harper accused the opposition of forming a coalition to advance its motion of finding the government in contempt of Parliament, Mr. Ignatieff replied: “You keep talking about Parliament as if it’s this little debating society that’s a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It’s not. It’s the Parliament of the people of Canada, and they found you in contempt.” Mr. Ignatieff portrayed himself to the be the most cerebral and theoretical of the leaders. This image will appeal to voters who believe that parliamentary traditions demand respect, who believe in the importance of a strong international reputation, and who think that intellectualism is a strength and not a liability of political leadership.

Mr. Ignatieff also expressed himself more clearly than the other leaders in his body language. In Gauthier’s essay, he reflects on the pioneering work of Ray Birdwhistell, whose classic book Kinesics and Context reminds us that it is more than just words that express meaning and influence. Our body movements (hand gestures, facial expressions) are also powerful communicators. On several occasions during the debate Mr. Ignatieff pointed his finger at Mr. Harper and could be seen staring deeply in his direction, hand fixed firmly on his hip (a gesture Aaron Wherry suggests that would have driven image consultants to “scream in unison at their television screens”). Mr. Ignatieff’s gestures will have produced competing images that will resonate with different voters: those who like him and mistrust the PM will see an assertive and strong leader and a genuine alternative. Those who already dislike him or have been convinced by the Conservative attack ads that Mr. Ignatieff is arrogant and aloof may conclude that the tone of his body movements convey aggression and impatience.

In many ways the NDP leader, Jack Layton, had the most difficult role of the evening. Faced with having to battle an established narrative that there are really only two options in the election (a red door or blue door), the NDP’s biggest challenge was to make itself appear relevant. And for this reason, it was necessary that Mr. Layton perform in such a way that would help him cut above the noise of the Conservative front-runner and his Liberal challenger. Mr. Layton’s physical position in the debate between his main federalist challengers was a benefit and reminds us of the famous aphorism that “space communicates”. It allowed him to alternate his body position in order to address each of his federalist opponents in turn on a similar point. To Mr. Ignatieff he asked, “Why have you been Mr. Harper’s best friend?” before turning toward Mr. Harper to state, “if it hadn’t been for him supporting you all this time, I’d have to be lending you my crutch so your government could’ve stayed in power.”

Mr. Layton also produced some of the evening’s most memorable lines, the most effective of which was was surely the one directed at Mr. Ignatieff’s voting record. In challenging Ignatieff’s claim that only a Liberal government can be an alternative to the Conservatives, he quipped: “Most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion. … You missed 70 per cent of the votes [in the House of Commons].” That this zinger wasn’t factually correct (Mr. Ignatieff really missed between 55-60 per cent of parliamentary votes) was really beside the point. Mr. Layton can only be seen to have succeeded in his goal of portraying his party’s relevance in the campaign. Pundits or observers who write off the NDP as irrelevant in this campaign should give their heads a shake. Whether Layton’s success in the debate translates into voter support or seats, however, is a different matter.

The big question people are asking today is “who won”? In many ways this is the wrong question to ask because it presumes the leaders were competing for the same audience. With his polling numbers sliding dramatically in the day preceding the debate, Mr. Harper had to appeal to nervous voters on the right and centre-right of the political spectrum to reassure them of his trustworthiness. While I don’t think his performance will have netted the Conservatives new votes, he did a reasonably good job of maintaining the support he already has.

Mr. Ignatieff had to court the same centre-right voters (who are also in play for the Liberals), as well as those who swing between the Grits and NDP, by reminding both of the Conservative contempt for Parliament and the allegations of scandal and corruption. On this score he did well. But he also had to show himself to be a credible alternative to Mr. Harper. And in this regard he deserves good marks. The Conservatives attempt to paint a picture of the Liberal leader as out of touch and aloof will have failed to register last night. Ironically, the strategy of vilifying the Liberal leader may benefit Mr. Ignatieff more than Mr. Harper in the end.

Mr. Layton, finally, had to appeal to his base of left wing support and to centre-left voters who have never quite warmed to Mr. Ignatieff. Ultimately, Layton’s main objective was to be a factor in the post-debate news cycle. Based on several memorable one-liners and of the media images showing him between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, he succeeded.

At the end of the day, we’re left with a situation where not much will have changed. Nobody wins and nobody loses. In some respects, with the exception of a single outlier, the post-debate polls shows a general tightening trend with some very interesting regional dynamics, including Quebec where the NDP appears to have some decent upward movement. Thus while tonight’s French-language debate won’t garner the same audience share as last night’s event, it is still very much a key chapter in the story of this election. And it’s a story that’s far from over.

4 Comments

Filed under Politics

Canada’s Public Relations State

In November 2010, The Hill Times reported a significant, if largely ignored, transformation in the apparatus of government. Citing data from Public Accounts, it showed how over a period of three years, spending on communications in the Prime Minister’s Office had steadily risen by 30 per cent to nearly $10 million per year. The biggest chunk of this spending was on personnel, with 22 per cent of the budget going to pay the salaries of the 26 people employed as PR strategists, officers and assistants in the government’s most powerful office.

Canadians will be forgiven for not taking notice. After all, this example of political journalism did not arrive by leak or following several months of investigative reporting. Rather, it came from the close reading of an accounting ledger — hardly the stuff of scandal or intrigue, despite its significance.

Setting aside the irony that this increase in spending came from a ruling bloc that considers itself the party of small government, there are very good public policy reasons for increasing the communications budget. An accelerated news cycle; the political activities of business interests, unions and NGOs; the amplification of partisan bickering within Parliament; the growth of social media; and the rise of specialty news outlets representing increasingly important ethno-cultural groups: together, these factors present an assemblage of opportunities and constraints for communicating the work of government to Canadians. Arguably, it’s never been more difficult for a government to communicate with its citizens.

Critics argue that this rise in PR spending is typical of a government obsessed with message control and they decry the decline of a democracy in which an increasingly influential cadre of spin-doctors appear to be manufacturing crises for no other reason than to justify their own solutions. Illustrative of this position is the Globe & Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, who wrote that “although centralized control of messaging has been a growing feature of governments in many democracies nothing in Canada has come close to the attention, time and effort the Harper government puts into managing and manipulating information and image-making.”

Notwithstanding the importance of such a critique, it misses the more important point that increased spending on PR may be fueling a transformation in the institutionalization of communication within the very heart of government. It’s a process that in a different political context the sociologists David Deacon and Peter Golding called the rise of the public relations state. For them, the increased spending on government PR offered insight into more than just the importance of packaging policy. It represented a new necessity in which government had to structure the playing field in such a way that privileged its position in the ongoing battle to manage and control public discourse, not only during election campaigns but in the periods between.

For Deacon and Golding, the institutionalization of government PR was not an evil in itself. Rather, it was problematic to the extent that it increased the likelihood of blurring “the conventional division between public information and party propaganda”. There are plenty of recent examples where this line has been approached, if not crossed altogether. The Conservatives over-zealous promotion of the Economic Action Plan at the same time as a major pre-election partisan offensive is but one example. The sponsorship scandal that effectively ended a period of Liberal hegemony is a more obvious one.

Given the current political climate, a federal election appears imminent. The Conservative government has been cited for contempt of Parliament; allegations of corruption continue to dominate headlines; negative attack ads are increasing with frequency; and the nations leading pollsters are competing every day to frame the political horse race and its likely outcome. The war for hearts and minds has reached a fevered pitch. Although public relations spending cannot guarantee the outcome of a campaign, it certainly influences the possibility of success.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Public Relations

Dirty Politics 2.0: Social Media and Election Black Ops

**This column was originally published online at The Mark News

From the telegraph to the Internet, new communication technologies have influenced the lives of citizens and the functioning of governments. With voters increasingly turning to the Web for information to guide decision-making, candidates and political parties are becoming more experimental and increasingly sophisticated in how they utilize social technologies, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to promote policies, mobilize supporters, and attack opponents.

Yet we have little, if any, regulatory framework within which to navigate this changing mediascape, and that needs to change. The 2010 municipal election in Toronto, won by Rob Ford, provides a valuable case in point.

Shortly after the election, The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s published feature stories detailing how Ford’s team delivered its improbable candidate to victory as mayor of Canada’s largest city, handily defeating his main opponent, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman.

The coverage focused on how Ford’s campaign team, spearheaded by Nick Kouvalis, made “creative” use of social media. But this was not creativity of the typical social media variety. There was no evidence of engagement, authenticity, and two-way communication, terms normally reserved for talking about social media.

Instead, it documented how Team Ford set up the phony Twitter account, @QueensQuayKaren (“a downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book”), who was in fact a member of Ford’s PR team, posing as a Smitherman supporter.

Ford’s team used this account to befriend a man who Kouvalis learned had provided the Toronto Star with a recording of Ford allegedly offering to help him illegally acquire OxyContin. This allowed Ford’s team to secure a copy of the recording, to leak it to a sympathetic Toronto Sun columnist who broke the story, and, in doing so, to minimize the fallout. It was a brilliantly executed crisis communication strategy.

The Ford campaign’s use of Twitter in this case raises a number of questions about political campaigns and social media.

For some, it raises the question of ethics. If a candidate or their staff is willing to act deceitfully during an election, can they be trusted to govern with integrity once they are in office?

This question has normative appeal for those who believe that dirty tricks undermine politics and that we should do what we can to reduce their impact. Nevertheless, history is filled with examples of campaign black ops from candidates across the political spectrum because politics is a contact sport, as Bill Clinton famously said. Rob Ford is not the first politician whose campaign has done whatever it takes to win, and he surely won’t be the last.

Others might question the Ford team’s vision. In the short term, this was a cleverly conceived ploy that killed a potentially damaging story at a key moment of the campaign. However, it raises questions about longer-term implications. Boasting of the move may have scored points with hard-liners who already support the mayor, but would it turn off Toronto voters who did not back his campaign but who he must now lead? And would it serve as notice to the City Hall media gallery that the Ford team sees them as little more than a nuisance to be manipulated and managed at every turn?

Most importantly, the case alerts us to a gap in the regulatory framework governing municipal campaigns. The ethical and strategic dimensions of this case can be debated. However, Ford’s actions were clearly within the boundaries of the law.

The City of Toronto’s 2010 Municipal Election Candidate’s Guide says absolutely nothing about how social media can or can’t be used. And although the City Clerk can respond to complaints about alleged criminal activities, the Municipal Elections Act guides her decision-making. This is provincial legislation which provides equally unclear guidelines about the rules and regulations governing election-time social media use. And according to a Ministry spokesperson, “there are no immediate plans to revise it.”

Elections are not determined by the use of social media. Nevertheless, sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter now play prominently in the branding of political candidates, the promotion of their platforms, the mobilization of supporters, and as part of the repertoire of election campaign dirty tricks to undermine or attack opposition.

Dirty tricks are as old as politics itself but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about activities that discredit the political system, no matter how “creative” they may be. It’s high time the regulations governing election campaigns reflected the media technologies and practices of the day.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Crisis Communication, Politics, Public Relations, Social Media

Tweet, Click, Vote: Twitter and the 2010 Ottawa Election

It’s 1:30am on October 26, 2010. The Ottawa municipal election is over. I will spend the next week reviewing and analyzing almost 10,000 archived Tweets about the election, but wanted to share some of the preliminary findings now.

OVERALL TWEETING ACTIVITY (01 – 25 Oct)

Total tweets: 9409 (it’s noteworthy that 70 percent of all tweets during this period were generated during the final week of the campaign)

Total tweeters: 1344

URLs shared: 1125 (top URL goes to The Bulldog Ken Gray)

80% (7527) of all tweets generated by 22% (308) of all tweeters

Top 10 tweeters (0%) generated 22% (2094) of all tweets

45% of all tweeters posted only 1 tweet

#OTTvote Tweets (Oct 1-25, 2010)

In the last 4 days of the campaign, 809 new Twitter accounts contributed to the #ottvote feed. It’s difficult to verify the authenticity of these accounts since most of them used non-identifiers. Yet, since a vast majority of them were used to besmirch the online reputations of candidates and their supporters it’s likely illustrative of the role of astroturfing in local politics. Indeed, there were almost 300 more new accounts in the final 4 days of the campaign than the total number (535) that had contributed to the Twitter feed during the previous 20 days.

TOP 10 TWEETERS (volume of activity)

CliveForMayor (356)

willsamuel (322)

ottawasun (237)

OniJoseph (231)

MacDoaker (198)

davidreevely (180)

DenVan (155)

SunCityHall (149)

jchianello (147)

josh_greenberg (119)

TOP @ REPLY RECIPIENTS OR MENTIONS

CliveDoucet (286)

JimWatsonOttawa (266)

CliveForMayor (239)

LarryOBrien2010 (172)

denvan (153)

willsamuel (152)

OniJoseph (104)

Ottawateaparty (100)

josh_greenberg (93)

ctvottawa (92)

TWEET SOURCE

The vast majority of #ottvote tweets were posted from the main Twitter website or via one of the many popular applications (e.g. Tweetdeck). Although only 15% of the tweets were added from a mobile device, I expect to see more use of iPhones, Blackberries and other smartphones in future campaigns not only for contributing content but for following results as well.

Desktop/Laptop – 85%

iPhone/Blackberry/Android – 15%

TWITTER SENTIMENT: TOP 3 MAYORAL CANDIDATES (18-25 Oct)

In the final week of the campaign a significant amount of Tweeter energy was devoted to negatively framing the incumbent and perceived frontrunner. The sharp increase in new Twitter accounts contributing to the #ottvote thread helps explain the heavy negative sentiment scores reported below, particularly for mayor-elect Watson.

Larry O’Brien (1134 opinions)

12% [+]

62% [-]

26% [+/-]

Clive Doucet (318 opinions)

46% [+]

10% [-]

44% [+/-]

Jim Watson (1177 opinions)

20% [+]

50% [-]

30% [+/-]

TWEET THEMES (Sept 1 – Oct 25)

Using the Crimson Hexagon data mining program I developed a coding grid to map the frequency and distribution of primary themes in the #ottvote feed between September 1 and October 25. As can be seen, over this period tweets discussing various aspects of the transit issue (e.g. light rail, ring road, OC Transpo strike, cycling) were predominant, followed closely by tweets which focused on a personality characteristic of a candidate. With a few notable exceptions, these personality mentions were almost entirely negative and focused in almost every case on one of the mayoral candidates.

The next two most common themes mentioned in tweets relating to the election focused on some element of the media coverage (e.g. announcing or commenting on media endorsement of a candidate) or on some type of electioneering strategy (the latter came almost entirely from tweets by candidates, e.g. “I’ll be canvassing in the Byward Market, come say hi!”). Although mentions of development were consistent and modest, I was surprised that more tweets relating to intensification, infill, environmental impacts of new infrastructure, etc. did not garner more attention. Equally surprising was the significantly lower numbers of tweets mentioning taxes or finance compared to other issues. Tweets referring to a range of social issues (housing, parks/recreation, childcare, etc.) netted only 11% of the mentions and tended to cluster around particular dates in which there were higher than normal levels of tweeting about these topics (i.e. Social Issues Mayoral Debate on Oct 8). Finally, although I coded for mentions of crime these did not yield significantly high numbers of mentions.

SUMMARY

It’s important to put case study findings in the appropriate comparative context. Looking at the final week of Twitter activity alone, it is noteworthy that #ottvote contributors generated 6642 tweets about the municipal election. However, their counterparts in other closely watched Canadian municipal campaigns were far more active. Using the hashtag #yycvote, Calgary tweeters generated 18,692 tweets about that city’s election in its final week. Calgary is a reasonable point of comparison to Ottawa – based on 2006 census data, it is Canada’s third largest city (population 988,193) while Ottawa is the country’s fourth largest (population 812,129). In Toronto, where the most exciting and controversial race occurred, tweeters contributed an impressive 33,504 tweets to the #VoteTO hashtag in the final 7 days of the campaign.

I will spend the coming week trying to make sense of these findings. What do these data say to you? Please share your thoughts about the role Twitter played in the election. What did you think were the most and least interesting and effective uses of Twitter? What impact, if any, might it have had on the election process and outcome?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The findings reported above were generated with two very useful open source data mining programs (Twapper Keeper and The Archivist). The sentiment analysis was performed using an algorithm developed by Crimson Hexagon. I want to thank Melyssa Plunkett-Gomez, VP Sales & Business Development, Crimson Hexagon, for providing access to this excellent program. I also wish to recognize the outstanding research assistance provided by Vincent Raynauld, PhD candidate in Communication at Carleton University.

7 Comments

Filed under Politics, Social Media, Technology