Higher Education 2.0 (Take 2)

In May 2010, the Huffington Post reported the results of a survey which found that 80 percent of university and college professors were using social media in their research and teaching. I blogged my reaction to the story, expressing surprise, picking at the survey’s methodological problems, and identifying what I considered to be its weak contributions to our understanding of social media use in higher education.

The e-learning company Pearson, which partnered with Babson Survey Research Group to complete the original report, announced yesterday the results of a follow-up survey of 1,920 faculty. Exploring 9 different types of social media among professors, the study reports that professors consider YouTube to be the most useful social media tool by far — nearly 1/3 of respondents report instructing students to watch online videos as part of their outside class work, and 73 percent say they find YouTube videos valuable for classroom use.

As with the previous survey, the current study notes no statistically significant difference in social media use across generational lines. In other words, junior faculty are no more likely to be using social media for research or teaching than more experienced professors. Both studies report variation by discipline, with liberal arts and social science faculty reporting higher levels of interest and use.

When I was a student, which really wasn’t that long ago, my professors used to show videos on Betamax or VHS tapes (by grad school we were on to DVDs) when they wanted to illustrate an idea or theme in the curriculum. If we missed a class, or if there were additional audio-visual materials the professor deemed important, s/he would place them on reserve in the library and we’d watch them there.

I reflect on this not for nostalgic reasons, but because there is really nothing in the current survey to suggest that faculty use of a tool like YouTube is about anything other than convenience. Faculty appear to be utilizing video sharing tools for purely instrumental reasons — the content is more portable and its use in lecture scenarios more seamless in relation to other technologies (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.).

But this doesn’t make faculty use of YouTube social. In fact, the faculty surveyed for this study report that they see very little value in using social media for collaborative learning, sharing, or content development and production. Notwithstanding the popularity of YouTube, other social media tools, notably Facebook and Twitter, were panned by almost half of the survey respondents for not only lacking pedagogical value but even harming classroom learning.

The study does not explore why faculty find some tools more useful than others, or under what circumstances they might consider social technologies to be more or less appropriate. This is a methodological blindspot which raises some important research questions that warrant further study.

Have faculty carefully considered the benefits and limitations of social technologies, only to conclude they don’t resolve a pedagogical problem?

Is the problem that faculty don’t understand or see the pedagogical benefits of social media for teaching, research and collaborative inquiry?

Do faculty not have the capacity or skill sets to keep abreast of a rapidly changing media landscape, choosing instead to stick with the instructional technologies tools they already know and trust?

Is the problem one of philosophy and not one of technique per se? Are faculty threatened by the loss of steering control that social media may introduce into a classroom situation?

Addressing these questions is important if we’re to fully appreciate and understand the relationship between social media and higher learning. If you know of any research that does so, please let me know. And please do use the comment field below to raise additional questions, or to share your observations or thoughts about those I’ve posed.

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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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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.

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Attack in the Capital

The Ottawa municipal election is in full swing. While there are some tight races in key wards of the city, the mayoral contest among Larry O’Brien, Jim Watson, Andy Haydon and Clive Doucet is, not surprisingly, attracting the most attention.

And for good reason: each of the candidates has a very different style and their personalities and distinct policy perspectives will shape the direction and tone of the next council. This is also a campaign that has been full of intrigue, innuendo and at least one bright moment: the early exit of popular Bay Ward councilor Alex Cullen, Watson’s weak attempt to make hay of party politics, O’Brien’s apology for being a “complete disaster” in his first term and his bizarre accusations of a conspiracy theory between the Watson and Haydon camps, Doucet’s gentlemanly conduct at a recent debate toward outsider Jane Scharf, all stand out as memorable.

The campaign has also featured interesting experimentation by the leading candidates with new technology to push content and engage voters. O’Brien has an iPhone app, Watson has strong presence across a variety of platforms, and both Doucet and Haydon have done a lot more than the others in engaging voters via Twitter. Ian Capstick, a media strategist and prominent Ottawa blogger, describes some of these approaches here, including what ordinary citizens are doing to participate in the election season online. Kate Heartfield also wrote a good column in today’s Ottawa Citizen.

A recent poll by Holinshed Research Group shows Watson has a strong lead with 36 percent support of decided voter support, compared to 17 percent for O’Brien, 8 percent for Haydon and 6 percent for Doucet. Importantly, 30 percent of survey respondents are undecided, and it is mostly this group that the front-runners will be targeting as they seek to drive momentum in their favour. Two and a half weeks is a long time in an election campaign, and anything can still happen.

Given this period of opportunity, it is thus not surprising to see at least one of the campaigns taking a decidedly negative turn. This morning, O’Brien’s team released an attack ad focusing on Watson’s record and the very bad things he would do to Ottawa if elected.

Attack ads are widely believed to be a turn off to voters, yet there is some evidence that they work and can even be good for the political process. The political scientist John Geer, author of an excellent book on the history of attack ads, argues that depending on their design and context attack ads can increase voter turnout, that they do the important work of highlighting certain political characteristics of one’s opponents that positive ads by those candidates ignore, and that they provide an important test of a candidate’s ability to respond to high pressured criticism. If Watson is capable of responding to the O’Brien camp’s negative campaign with poise and substance, it will make the incumbent’s efforts appear even more desperate.

These are the big questions:

Are the undecideds likely to be moved by a message of fear or are they looking for a more positive motivation? Will the O’Brien ad shift the tide of voter preference in his direction? Will voters take the O’Brien ad as a personal attack on Watson (which it is not) or as a credible and fair critique of his record in government (which is up for debate)? Will Watson, or Doucet and Haydon for that matter, go negative themselves? Will O’Brien turn up the pressure and attack Watson’s personal characteristics if an attack against his record proves ineffective?

It’s hard to know how voters will respond since we have to evaluate not only the ad itself, but also the massive amount of other information already in the media environment. How voters react will also be determined by how O’Brien’s opponents respond and what the incumbent does next.  We have two and a half weeks to find out.

MORE INFORMATION: If you want to check out ads from the other mayoral candidates, click on the links below.

Jim Watson’s YouTube page here

Clive Doucet’s YouTube page here

Andy Haydon does not have a YouTube page but you can visit his blog here

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Congress 2010: Academics Unite

The 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences officially kicked off today in Montreal. The largest academic party in Canada, Congress brings together several thousand scholars, students, practitioners and policy makers to share ideas, debate current issues and events, and advance and promote new research.

It is also a hell of a good time (yes, we academics can be fun…sometimes). Congress provides a venue for nerds like me to meet up with old grad school buddies and former colleagues who have since scattered across Canada and internationally to take up positions in universities, research institutes, government and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Congress hosts the annual meetings of more than 70 associations representing a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from art history and classics to journalism studies and political science. I’m a member of two associations, the Canadian Communication Association and the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research. Our meetings are scheduled for next week, which puts me in Montreal from June 1-4. Until then I’m busily preparing the slides and speaking notes for the 3 talks I have agreed to give. Here’s a very brief summary:

June 1 – Talk of the Enemy: Adversarial Framing and Climate Change Discourse

This paper was written with my collaborator Graham Knight (McMaster University). Our interest is in exploring the communication strategies of activists and counter-movements who are locked into contentious struggles over policy, public opinion and media attention. In particular we look at the rise of adversarial framing in the debate over global climate change. Adversarial framing is a form of reputational assault — it’s a rhetorical strategy designed to vilify and malign the moral character, competence, credentials and associations of one’s opponents and adversaries. The debate about climate change provides a fascinating laboratory for exploring the claims-making practices of global warming realists and climate change skeptics and our paper focuses on two high profile Canadian examples from each camp.

June 3 – Reframing Social Justice

I was invited by Concordia University’s Leslie Shade to participate in a roundtable discussion with other scholars and public interest activists to discuss strategies and tactics for increasing a “Connected Understanding” of vital social justice issues. This connectivity means many things and we will be discussing the following questions: first, how do we develop diverse modes of research dissemination that will impact policy outcomes for the public interest; second, should we engage in scholarly-activist activity through our research and teaching (and if so how should this be done); and third, what steps (if any) can be made to build a sustainable infrastructure and network of academic-activists who might work collaboratively on research topics of mutual interest that can impact and influence public discourse and policy?

June 4 – Communicating Homelessness and Social Housing in Canada

I have convened this special roundtable to discuss the intersections of policy advocacy and media discourse about homelessness in Canada. Acting as both moderator and speaker, I will discuss some of the findings of a longitudinal analysis of media coverage about homelessness in four Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa) on which I served as principal investigator. My doctoral student, Gina Grosenick, will present some of the findings of her dissertation research, which explores how nonprofit organizations in these cities have developed advocacy strategies through a ‘negotiation’ of the opportunities and constraints for communicative action. I’m also looking forward to the contributions of two professionals whom I hold in very high esteem: Kate Heartfield, a member of the editorial board at the Ottawa Citizen, will discuss the production pressures newsmakers face in reporting on complex social policy issues; and Michael Shapcott, Director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at The Wellesley Institute in Toronto, will speak to the implications of media representations for social justice advocacy.

In addition to the above presentations I am also looking forward to meeting up with my good friend and collaborator Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary. Our textbook, Communication in Question, has sold very well and our publisher has requested a second volume. A lot has changed in the world of media and communication studies the past 3 years and we will be updating some of the existing chapters and rounding out the book with exciting new content. Stay tuned!

If you find yourself in Montreal next week, please drop me a note and come say hello. I will also be live-tweeting at the other sessions I attend. You can find me on Twitter here.

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