Category Archives: Public Relations

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.

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

Fake news, questionable ethics and bad publicity

The American propagandist and “father of spin” Edward Bernays famously argued that the propaganda efforts which had been so important to the success of the U.S. wartime effort could be equally applied during times of peace and stable government.

If you follow me on Twitter or stay plugged into the day’s online news feeds, you may already be familiar with the case of Citizenship & Immigration Canada’s fake oath-taking event. If not, CIC staffers, under pressure from the Minister’s office and in cahoots with producers at the Conservative-friendly Sun TV News, orchestrated a make-believe citizenship ceremony for “new Canadians”. The problem is that the majority of the so-called new citizens who attended the event to take their oaths were actually government bureaucrats.

There are two immediately striking observations to be made here: the first is to question the effort and expense paid by a government department (on the taxpayer’s dime, no less) to organize a media event that was more focused on the production of an image–no matter the substance–than the celebration of real citizenship. That they would do so for a news network that draws very meagre ratings makes it all the more puzzling.

More importantly, how in the world could the CIC’s senior communications staff (and SunTV producers, for that matter) not have known that this would blow back, making them look either stupid or manipulative? The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which oversees emergency response in the United States, did almost the exact same thing several years ago during the California wild fires and got called out for its efforts in the national media. Either the CIC’s communication strategists didn’t know about the FEMA case or they chose to ignore it. Beyond the unethical nature of the behaviour, neither ignorance or bliss is an acceptable defense when you’re paid to act like a professional.

The Conservative government already has a reputation for relentless information management. Events like the fake oath-swearing ceremony irritate and agitate the national media, with whom the Tories already have strained relations, not to mention the Twitterati who kept the event trending for most of today. More importantly, events like this one reinforce in the minds of citizens–especially non-supporters–that this is a government for whom spin control has become the norm in communicative practice. While it’s unlikely to have any kind of long-term effects on its own, this event now joins others (and here) in the growing case file of Tory propaganda.

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Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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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.

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“Real Beauty” and the Promotion Paradox

Marketers have long believed that effective advertising taps our subconscious to trigger emotions, motivate deeply held desires and offer messages of aspiration. If you want to sell basketball shoes, feature them on an airborne Michael Jordan. If you want teenage boys to buy cigarettes, then who better than the iconic Marlboro Man to represent their association with rugged masculinity and freedom? And if you want to sell lingerie, perfume or makeup to women and girls, offer up the idealized image of the Hollywood celebrity or supermodel.

In other words, product promotion aims to produce a consumer experience based on fantasy, feeling and fun. Product functionality — what it actually does, how it performs, its durability, etc. — is less important for the purposes of promotion than the symbolic values it connotes. Does what you wear, the car you drive, the food you eat or the designer drugs you take make you feel or appear independent, sexy, athletic, in control, cool, Canadian, or cosmopolitan? The objective of advertising is to fuse the symbolic attributes of a brand with the psychosocial needs and desires of the consumer. Because ads are the stuff of daydreams, they are carefully designed to manipulate our anxieties and appeal to our aspiration for a life that’s free of social conventions or constraints. “People are living lives of desperation,” says trends consultant Gerald Celente. “They don’t want to be themselves.”

Although the aspirational model of advertising is still dominant, its influence across product fields and genres has waned in recent years. In part this is due to a changing economic landscape. As the New York Times reports, the deterioration of the global economy has driven many leading marketers to abandon the fantasy model of advertising for a more populist feel – indulgence is out, austerity is in.

But it also reflects a cultural shift, a move away from the desire for fantasy toward, apparently, the embrace of authenticity. It reflects what some perceive to be a consumer desire for ads that feature people just like them doing the things they like to do. This is a shift born not just from hard economic times but, perhaps, from popular discontent with what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the culture industry’s system of “false needs.” The preference of some consumers to see real people in product marketing stems from a rejection of the idea that we might be so one-dimensional that a cleverly conceived marketing ploy, and not our capacity for rational decision-making, actually determines our purchasing behaviour.

Real Beauty

In some respect this cultural shift frames the context behind the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Launched in 2004, the campaign was premised on the notion of promoting a more “democratic” view of female beauty that eschewed fetishized femininity in favour of “real women with real bodies and real curves.” Dove commissioned research by Harvard professor Nancy Etcoff and feminist author Susie Orbach, which found inter alia that only 2 percent of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful. This was a powerful message and provided a unique marketing opportunity for Dove’s creative agency Ogilvy & Mather. Attention-grabbing billboards, print and TV ads, an interactive website, and a travelling photo exhibit, were the main vehicles used to generate and encourage a conversation that, Dove hoped, would not only lead to more progressive attitudes about female body image but also increase sales.

More than 1 million women worldwide visited the Campaign for Real Beauty website within the first year; the Media Awareness Network, a nonprofit organization in Canada that promotes media literacy, developed lesson plans for school teachers to talk about body image and the impact of the Dove campaign; the “real beauties” who were the ordinary “stars” of the campaign became overnight celebrities on the TV talk show circuit; Ogilvy & Mather was awarded a Grand Effie prize in 2006, a top industry award for effectiveness in advertising; and the campaign generated a considerable amount of earned media attention (and thus audience impressions). In the short term, sales figures pointed to a big win – according to a CBC report, the campaign generated double-digit growth for the brand in the second quarter of 2005. Dove sales rose 11.4% in the first quarter of 2005 and Dove’s total U.S. dollar sales rose 6% to $500 million.

Building on its initial campaign Unilever recently launched a new initiative called the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem. With this new program, the company aims to build “a world where women everywhere have the tools to inspire each other and the girls in their lives.” If the concept behind the first campaign was to challenge media misrepresentations of beauty, the successor campaign is premised on the notions of mentorship and capacity building. In this sense, the current program purports to represent a more tangible form of corporate responsibility by promoting relationship building and dialogue, not only with its consumers via product marketing but also through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and by recruiting third party endorsement from key influencers, such as prominent mommy bloggers.

Not So Beautiful

Despite the pro-social messaging of these campaigns, they have not escaped criticism. Advertising executive Mary Lou Quinlan accuses Dove of being risky and, from a sales perspective, ineffective: “If we’re all fine the way we are, we don’t need to buy anything. That’s not what marketing is about”.  In other words, if women feel perfectly content about how they look and feel, why should they spend their money on moisturizers, skin toners and firming creams? The point of beauty products marketing, Quinlan argues, is to convince people they want to look younger, have smoother skin, and look more attractive. Calling the Campaign for Real Beauty “a very expensive public service announcement”, Quinlan notes that after an initial bump in sales, profits eventually dwindled. This was a case, she suggests, of effective public relations undermining successful marketing.

Pursuing a line of cultural critique, Carleton University professor Eileen Saunders argues (in my co-edited media studies book) that Dove’s confrontation with the beauty myth may be effective from a PR standpoint, but it’s also less than altruistic. She critiques the premise of the campaign for continuing to reinforce the norm that beauty is a disciplinary project requiring women to treat their bodies as a work in progress: “the supermodel may have been displaced by the ‘real woman’ in the Dove campaign, but the beauty ideal she represents has not been displaced.” Saunders argues that we should be skeptical of the campaign’s “seductive rhetoric” because, in the end, the ability of women to attain real beauty is still located within the act of consumption. While Dove may be positioning itself cleverly “as a socially aware company whose feel-good values we can applaud,” its premise of democratizing beauty still “obscures the fact that we are being invited to vote with our dollar.” For Saunders, the campaign is not a case of “celebrating real beauty” so much as “telling us where we can buy it.”

A third criticism explores the hypocrisy of advocacy advertising in a global context. Nonprofit technology blogger Claire Kerr takes the Dove campaign to task in a series of posts (here and here) that coincided with the launch of “Dove Dishes”, an event which brought together prominent female bloggers and journalists to talk about the social pressures facing women and girls and to promote the Movement for Self-Esteem (you can track the Twitter conversation at #DoveDishes). Kerr is most unsettled by the fact that Dove’s parent company Unilever also owns several brands that aggressively trade on the unhealthy body image the Dove campaigns claim to target, particularly in other parts of the world.

If raising ‘global self-esteem for women’ was a genuinely important objective for Unilever, why do they run SunSilk ads telling [Filipino] girls that if they have dry hair boys won’t want to touch them?


How, Kerr asks, can we take seriously Dove’s belief that we should “imagine a world where every girl grows up with the self-esteem she needs to reach her full potential” when sister company Pond’s draws on highly racialized anxieties to promote skin-lightening creams to girls in Asia? How can we take Dove seriously, she asks, when it invites us to “imagine a world where every woman enjoys feeling confident in her own beauty” when another Unilever brand, Slim-Fast, so flagrantly preys upon the female body image anxieties Dove seeks to dispel? And how are we to take Dove seriously when it asks us to “imagine a world where we all help to build self-esteem in the people we love most” against ads for Unilever products like Axe deodorant, which objectify women as sexualized objects? Kerr argues that Unilever is deeply hypocritical and more than cynical for using Dove’s benevolent messaging to challenge the unrealistic body image ideals that it’s other product lines create and sustain.

Promotionalism As Its Own Problem

How do we come to terms with the gap between Dove’s progressive messaging and the criticism from marketers, academics and other observers?

Unilever has clearly been successful in using promotional communication to craft an identity that is both socially conscious and fashionable. Its strategy of using ordinary women to advertise its line of Dove beauty products, of partnering with nonprofit organizations and third party advocates, of commissioning research and hosting offline events, expands the meaning of both its corporate image and the cause it seeks to advance. Its products and brand name, its identity, and its activism on behalf of others (in this case, women and girls) all feed into the company’s promotional mix. The integration of its product marketing and business responsibility efforts allows Unilever to represent itself as a concerned corporate citizen promoting both community building and conversation as solutions to social problems.

The criticisms against the Real Beauty and Self-Esteem campaigns represent the reflexive character of corporate promotionalism. On the one hand, promotionalism is a solution to the issues of corporate communication and identity: in this case, helping a beauty industry company develop a unique and competitive market position while advancing a pro-social agenda that takes the industry’s own myth-making to task. At the same time, the criticisms discussed above also show that corporate promotionalism can “bend back” on Unilever in the form of new communication problems that result precisely from the side effects of its success. The success Unilever has achieved in promoting Dove as a prominent, socially progressive brand, is precisely what makes it a high profile target of critique. Its claim to stand for such values as individuality, self-esteem, confidence and opportunity for girls plays well in one part of the world, but these are values that appear less than genuine when other brands owned by the same corporation manipulate the physical and emotional anxieties of girls in other parts of the world.

Corporate promotionalism operates primarily in civil society where citizens exercise their agency as consumers. Will the side effects of Unilever’s success with its Dove campaigns create a marketing dilemma, affecting profits over the long term (as Quinlan suggests) or a credibility dilemma, as Saunders, Kerr and others (see hereherehere and here) argue? It’s difficult to know whether these critiques will have wider resonance — however, because corporate identity circulates in the public sphere where its meaning cannot be completely controlled, and because promotionalism trades on a currency of trust and credibility, both Unilever and Dove would be well advised to take them seriously.

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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.

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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.

 

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