Tag Archives: Election

Political Image and the Canadian English-Language Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Politics

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

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

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


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)


CliveDoucet (286)

JimWatsonOttawa (266)

CliveForMayor (239)

LarryOBrien2010 (172)

denvan (153)

willsamuel (152)

OniJoseph (104)

Ottawateaparty (100)

josh_greenberg (93)

ctvottawa (92)


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%


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.


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?


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.


Filed under Politics, Social Media, Technology

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


Filed under Politics, Public Relations

Politicizing the public service a danger to public health

Two news items today worth noting. The first story, from the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, reports that the Tories have clamped down on public servants during the election, “muzzling” them from speaking at conferences, to scientific meetings, or in other public engagements. The story quotes Myriam Massabki, a spokesperson with the Privy Council Office, who argues the PCO rationale is to prevent public servants from speaking up about policy issues that may influence voter decisions during the election campaign. 

The timing of the announcement is important – the Conservatives are still dealing with blowback from the agriculture minister’s conference call faux pas, and most attribute the leak of the minister’s comments to an axe-grinding bureaucrat or staffer (this is as yet unproven and we may never know the source). Regardless, the announcement will most certainly produce a chilling effect within the public service and exacerbate already strained relations with the ruling party (of course, this assumes the Conservative will carry their 2-week lead in the polls through to election day).

The other item worth mentioning in this context is from CTV. The story is about a forthcoming commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Dr. Kumanan Wilson, the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Policy, and Dr. Jennifer Keelan, both of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Professors Wilson and Keelan ask why the federal agriculture minister and the president of Maple Leaf Foods, the company linked to the outbreak, have been the faces of the outbreak for both the media and the public rather than the government’s own chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones.

Good question.

“There’s a reason why we want our public health officials and our public health office to be in the lead on public health issues,” Wilson and Keelan argue. “When you have that situation, you are less likely to make other kinds of compromises for other reasons. The primary goal will be to improve public health.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada Act allows the chief public health officer to issue annual reports to Parliament and to communicate directly with the public concerning public health issues. Yet, Butler-Jones is more than just the country’s leading public health officer – he is also a deputy minister, precisely the kind of public servant the PCO/Tories are intending to muzzle from speaking on matters of public interest.
The irony here is that had Butler-Jones been the government’s public face of the issue and not the agriculture minister, the Tories would have saved themselves days of apologies and distractions, and improved the possibility of scoring that elusive majority. 

As an aside, it’s noteworthy that the headline in the delivery copy of the Citizen read “PCO tightens muzzle on PS for campaign” while the online version (at time of writing) read: “Tories tighten muzzle on PS for campaign.” A minor distinction, but an important one, especially if my hunch is right that many readers won’t know what the PCO is or the role it plays.

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Filed under Food-borne illness, Politics