Tag Archives: Politics

Canada’s Public Relations State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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