a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Issue management is a Tory specialty

When I began this blog I had intended not to dwell on the current Canadian government two weeks in a row. But recent developments in Canadian politics are just too compelling to pass up.

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders were trooping to New York to speak to the UN General Assembly. All that is except Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He headed to Oakville, Ont., to a Tim Horton's to celebrate the repatriation of corporate control of the donut chain from the U.S.

Historians might wonder about Harper's motives of travelling back to Canada for an easy photo-0p sandwiched between an historic session of the UN and an all important G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Indeed, Harper could be in for some ridicule in future years.

But Harper apparently didn't care. The visit to Tim Horton's was about far more than a double double or Timbits. It was intended to remind the Conservatives' core voters that the Prime Minister hasn't forgotten who sent him to Ottawa.

Much about Harper's appeal to Conservative voters is about sticking it to the swells just as Richard Nixon was elected to the U.S. presidency in 1968 on an anti-intellectual/anti-elitist ticket.

Harper was elected on a plain vanilla, ordinary folks agenda and his trip to Tim's was part of that. That visit also demonstrates how good Harper and his government are in issue management.

Four years ago in the months before Harper formed the federal government, Canadian politics was dominated by the quest for a national daycare system, better healthcare and the Kelowna accord for native self-government. Today those issues have disappeared from the media.

The visible issues now are crackdown on crime (even though the national crime rate continues to decline), ware on Afghanistan, and keeping the Arctic safe from the paws of the big Russian bear.

Daycare, health and a better deal for aboriginals are all urban liberal issues. Support for the armed forces, law and order and standing up for Canada are nice tangible issues to appease small town Canada and the core Tory vote.

The healthcare system may be fiscally unsustainable as it continues to eat up the revenues of the provincial governments. Excessive waiting times are accepted as just a part of Canadian life. But the government doesn't want to talk about stuff like that because historically, the Liberals do better with health and softer social issues than the Tories do.

This government will be in power as long as it can control the public agenda.

In the fairness department, let's look at the Liberals' messaging trouble next week.

As always, I'm eager to hear what you think. I'm grateful to Don Newman for weighing in on last week's post. For those who are receiving this posting by email, scroll down to the Spindoctor link to directly connect to the blog. Adding your comments is simple: just enter in the comment box provided.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Success in Canadian politics depends on who sets the frame

Now that Parliament is off for a week because of the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, let's have a look at some interesting developments in Canadian politics.

Last Friday the Harper government survived a confidence vote thanks to support from the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP. So a prime minister, who waxed indignant not too long ago about the Liberals forming an odious coalition with the separatists and socialists, was propped up by, well, separatists and socialists.

Indeed the Conservative spin machine was still running television ads last weekend attacking Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with the flimsy-at-best accusation that he was part of the short-lived coalition last winter of the Liberals, under Stephane Dion, and the NDP and Bloc.

Is Harper or his party embarrassed by last Friday's developments? Probably not. Will the Conservatives have to do some quick damage control because many Canadians will see them as hypocrites? Again probably not.

This is because modern political tactics don't have much to do with truth. Politics in the 21st century is driven by something called framing.

Framing works like this: because the public and journalists alike are bombarded with information in the current 24-hour news cycle, we all have to resort to stereotypes and preconceived notions to process and make sense of it all.

So if a political party, with the money to purchase pre-election advertising, can make a claim, true or not, often enough, the public will form an impression or "frame". The frame becomes the mental template through which a particular issue is commonly viewed.

Even when your opponent vehemently denies the frame, the inadvertent effect is to repeat the negative and therefore reinforce the frame much like good chess players try to "fork" their opponent. This is when an opponent is forced into a position in which he or she must lose something in order to respond.

The side that gets its version of the truth on the record first usually controls the frame. And it takes a very dramatic development to break that frame.

It will be interesting to see what the Liberals can come up with to counter the Tory frame next week when Parliament resumes.

The Liberals had been the victim of the widely-held frame that they would support the minority government no matter what because they were terrified of an election. But now it's the NDP's turn to face the same frame. The Liberals have announced they will no longer support the Harper government and will look to defeat it at the earliest opportunity. In other words, Ignatieff was able to take a noose off his own neck and slip in on the neck of NDP leader Jack Layton.

Nice move. Next week we can watch Ignatieff try to do the same with Harper. Like much of our electioneering techniques, issue framing is imported from the U.S. It was really perfected by the Republicans.

Has the time come to examine what framing is doing to the integrity of Canadian politics? Perhaps the Canadian political class should be asking this. Look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Michael Bryant case shows Wikipedia waits for nobody

Most of Canada by now has read and heard about the horrific traffic incident involving Michael Bryant and a cyclist who died as a result on the second last day of August.

The former Ontario Attorney General is facing serious charges and no doubt wondering how he can save his career.

The purpose of this post is not to speculate on what actually happened. But it became immediately clear this bizarre and tragic story is likely to become a case study in reputation management.

There was an interesting development on the night of the incident at about 10 p.m. in the Yorkville district of Toronto, well past most media deadlines.

Journalists converging on the scene needed a few hours to piece together what happened and most media were reluctant at first to identify Bryant as the driver without confirmation by the police.

But at some point in that overnight period Wikipedia, the online reference service that depends on voluntary submissions, went ahead and identified Bryant and provided a rough account without police confirmation. At one point CBC Radio actually read the Wikipedia entry.

There is a lesson here to professional crisis communicators: monitor Wikipedia with the rest of the media immediately.

Also interesting was that once Bryant had called a lawyer, he called a high-profile public relations firm, Navigator, and retained them immediately. Smart move. The court of public opinion is just as important as the court of law when it comes to reputation management.

Navigator's involvement seems to have made a huge difference. By the second day of coverage, virtually all media were focused on the background of the man who died in the incident, including his brushes with the law and the fact that he was ordered by police to leave the apartment of his ex-girl friend in an enraged state the same night.

By the third day, Bryant was looking more like a victim who was only fleeing an incident of road rage. The story had been professionally reframed.

Sure, all relevant information about this case would have become public eventually. However, by the time it did, he case would have been cast in the public mind with Bryant as a sole aggressor.

I am interested in what fellow communicators think about this case. Please let me know what you think about Navigator's involvement.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SpinDoctor hosts debate on communications issues

Most people who own a computer travel to cyberspace for everything from mundane information like movie times to the news of the day. And increasingly they are looking to social media for discussion of professional issues.

SpinDoctor is a new weekly blog for all those who are interested in professional communications issues. Whether an issue involves how the media handle a story or how a corporation dealt with a serious crisis, SpinDoctor wants to encourage critical discussion of how we can communicate better.

The author of SpinDoctor is Gord McIntosh, an Ottawa public affairs consultant who has worked in several media as a journalist. In addition to running a consulting practice in government and public affairs, Gord works as a media trainer and ghost writer.

Some postings will involve professional advice to communicators on how to deal with a tricky problem like a gun shy client. Other postings will look at actual case studies of what works and what doesn't. Still others might look at how the PR industry and the media are serving the public.

Whatever the topic, your comments are more than welcome. Let's debate communications and media issues.

Gord McIntosh

Brief commercial message: You can find SpinDoctor through my 110percent.ca website If you have an interest in exploring blogging as a business tool, I'd encourage you to visit the BlogDoctor page. It's part of a new service offering which also includes MagDoctor.
Cheers, GMC