a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Digital revolution II

Sometime in the late 1950s, a representative of Xerox was eagerly demonstrating the company's miraculous new product, the photo copier, to Marshall McLuhan. The late, great communications guru took a quick look at the machine and informed the rep that his employer had just changed democracy.

Back then, most people were at best bemused by McLuhan's pronouncements. It is a good bet the Xerox rep looked at McLuhan like he was from another planet.

But to most people today, McLuhan's reasoning for that pronouncement would be very logical. With the introduction of the photo copier, anyone could be a publisher of anything from a small leaflet to a set of leaked government documents.

The introduction of the photo copier lead to a whole line of technological descendents from the fax machine to the scanner and ultimately the Web. Indeed, ordinary people have gained the ability to keep an eye on Big Brother, just as Big Brother keeps an eye on us.

The basis of McLuhan's analysis -- communications technology changes human convention -- is as sound today as it was in the 1950s.

It is a shame McLuhan is not around to see the Facebook page of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament and its membership, now over 210,000. I am willing to bet the old master would have some things to say to all those members of the country's political class who have been pooh-poohing CAPP's campaigns, including last weekend's protests across the country.

Really, it is understandable why so many members of the political class would be quick to dismiss any Facebook group. What if a well-run Facebook group can get faster results than say an industry association, an expensive lobbying firm, a professionally-run coalition, or a political party?

CAPP's mission may still be a work in progress. But it has managed to keep its issue front and centre in the public mind when the punditry has assumed voters didn't know a prorogue from a perogy, or even cared.

This, of course, is not the first mass-scale demonstration of the power of digital advocacy. A year and a half ago, the Ontario government took one look at the Facebook group, Young Drivers Against New Ontario Laws, with its 100,000+ membership, and caved.

Digital advocacy doesn't have to have a Facebook page either. Two years ago a rash of web sites and e-mail blasts suddenly emerged against the federal Tories' Bill C-51, which would have given Health Canada wider investigative and enforcement powers over natural health products.

As things turned out, all this viral activity was what is known among lobbyists as an Astroturf campaign. A company that made natural health products turned out to be behind the campaign. However, the campaign managed to sprout some actual grass roots participation in rural ridings, which are predominately Tory.

Bill C-51 died on the order paper when the 2008 election was called. It was never reintroduced.

Similar Health Canada legislation, Bill C-6, sparked continued digital protests from the natural health products community last year. The Tories were unnerved enough to amend the bill at the last minute to exempt natural health products.

Bill C-6, of course, died in the Senate when Parliament was prorogued Dec. 30.

Memo to Tory strategists: Digital democracy is here to stay.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti rescue/relief operation displays good communications

There has been plenty of criticism of how governments communicate in this blog. So let's look at some communications that worked.

It is now pretty apparent that Ottawa has learned and learned well from past mistakes in the humanitarian operations in Lebanon in 2006 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

The federal government wasted little time in dispatching the DART relief and rescue team to Haiti after the horrendous earthquake there on Jan. 12. This was in sharp contrast to 2004 when the bureaucracy hemmed and hawed before sending the DART team and the media were filled with speculative stories about what might be behind the delay.

This was a case of the short-lived government of Paul Martin leaving mission management to the bureaucrats when political leadership was required. Indeed, the tsunami of December 2004 may have been the watershed of Martin's reputation as Mr. Dithers.

There was much delay in 2006 in rescuing Canadians trapped in Lebanon during the Israeli strike against Hamas. In fact, the Harper government seemed ambivalent about rescuing them at all.

This time the Harper government was careful to leave any politics out of its messaging on Haiti. In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an unusual gesture of sharing the limelight with Haitian-born Michaelle Jean, the Governor General. Both of them made a touching and heartfelt appeal for help for Haiti.

In all, the federal government has done Canadians proud in the way it has dealt with the disaster in Haiti.

What's interesting is the difference in deportment of the Prime Minister on Haiti and less than 20 days earlier when Harper appeared in the now famous Peter Mansbridge interview.

On Haiti, Harper was very emotional and very clearly showed empathy for the Haitian people as well as the Canadians who were on the island when the earthquake struck. In the Mansbridge interview, Harper acted dismissively of Canadians' objections to proroguing and even sneered while doing it.

Harper seemed sincere on both occasions. We probably witnessed two distinct sides to the Prime Minister's personality, which likely means Harper will remain an enigma to most Canadians long after he has left office.

Since last week's posting of this blog, two prominent pollsters have reported that Canadians' disapproval of prorogation has been so strident that the Conservatives and Liberals are now virtually tied in the polls.

It represents a huge tumble for the Conservatives, who were ahead of the Liberals by as much as 15 percentage points in October.

For the Tories, the latest polls confirm one of the largest strategic mistakes by a federal government since Confederation. And, of course, the remarkable progress the Tories have made in winning over Canadian hearts and minds since early fall has been wiped out.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have been handed, or should that be gifted, a massive do-over for Michael Ignatieff, their leader.

Whether Iggy is able to take full advantage of this gift remains to be seen. But so far he seems to have made a good start toward an effective makeover with his campus tour and decision to summon his MPs back to work in Ottawa next week.

Watch for the Tories to hold a mini cabinet shuffle this week or next. Possibly even a special national caucus meeting in early February to prevents the Grits from hogging media attention.

As for the prospect of the Tories' much coveted majority, the next leader of majority government may not yet be sitting in the House of Commons.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The digital uprising that spawned a new age

A funny thing happened to Stephen Harper on the way to "recalibrating" his government. He ran into a digital revolution.

It must have seemed like such a solid tactic on the day before New Year's Eve to all those bright young things in the Prime Minister's Office. Wait until nobody is on Parliament Hill, including the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Then slip a controversial announcement past a holidaying Opposition and media, and, of course, a Canadian public, whose minds were on stretching out the last few days of the holiday period.

Using dead zones in the news cycle when newsrooms have minimal staff is known in the spin doctoring trade as "taking out the trash". As anyone who reads a newspaper, watches TV news or listens to radio knows, traditional media have a tiny attention span.

If you want to keep something out of the media and away from public debate, just announce it during one of the dead-zone periods. By the time the media are at full speed, say on Monday morning after New Year's, it will be ancient history.

That the Dec. 30 announcement on Parliament Hill involved a word --prorogue -- few Canadians had heard of must have been a bonus to the folks in the PMO. Yup, a solid communications tactic that has worked time and time again.

So the prime minister announced he would prorogue Parliament until March 3 to allow his government to recalibrate itself (whatever that means) before the next budget. As a result a ton of legislation and a parliamentary inquiry on Afghan detainee abuse died on the order paper.

In fact, the tactic did work for a few days. The Opposition was scattered around the country on Christmas break and the media wrote off the prorogue story as something of concern to parliamentary weenies, not ordinary Canadians.

But a 25-year-old graduate student named Christopher White had other ideas. He started a Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing. In less than a week this group had 148,000 members. Oops, an online uprising.

Actually, online catalyst might be a more accurate description. The Facebook group got a boost after a couple of days because of a front page story in The Toronto Star by Susan Delacourt, a seasoned veteran who has always had a keen sense of what's going on with the public zeitgeist. Delacourt may have written the most important Canadian political story of 2010.

The Facebook story gained validation when The Economist, the right wing periodical they used to like so much in the PMO, chastised Harper as a dictator who shut down Parliament because he was peeved at what he was hearing.

Then two respected pollsters reported the Tories had slipped a bit because of widespread disapproval of prorogation.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff appears, for once, to have gained an upper hand by announcing his caucus will be back on Parliament Hill on Jan. 25, with or without the Tories. Smart move.

There is no reason yet to believe the Tories won't be able to ride this out. However, you can be sure that from now on, the Prime Minister's spinners will be factoring in the social media in their tactics.

There is also a lesson for the traditional media who were just as unprepared for this online uprising.

The whole appeal of social media to a rising generation is that it is interactive. Ordinary people get to say something instead of being talked at by pundits who treat government and politics like a horse race and so much infotainment.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fixing communications miscues of 2009

There isn't much point in rehashing the great communications miscues of 2009. But it might be worthwhile looking at how they can be fixed in 2010.

1. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his platform (or lack of one): After just a year on the job both Iggy's brand and reputation are in deep trouble. The immediate challenge for the leader and his party is to make themselves heard and seen during the two-month limbo of Parliament.

But the shutdown of Parliament also presents an opportunity for Iggy to let Canadians get to know him and what his party stands for. The Liberals' upcoming policy conference in Montreal presents an opportunity to start showing Canadians the Liberal party's vision for the 21st century. Simply attacking the Tories and repeating the mantra of past Grit achievements won't cut it anymore. Rightly executed the Montreal policy conference could be what the Aylmer conference was to Jean Chretien and his party in 1991.

It also wouldn't hurt to lighten up a bit, go on Rick Mercer and maybe hit some small towns or even some shopping malls in the 905 belt. There isn't much future being known as the Harvard don who lives in Yorkville.

One advantage Iggy can count on is the personality of his opponent. Stephen Harper seems to have difficulty missing the chance of being an SOB. Just as the Tories were able to cast Paul Martin (justifiably or not) as Mr. Dithers in 2006, it should not be hard to cast the Rt. Hon. Stephen as Mr. Meanie or even the Dictator.

It is now or never.

2. Tiger Woods: It is a bad sign when someone like John Daly thinks you should reinvent yourself. But never mind. If George W. Bush can go from being a drunk to President and Ted Kennedy can redeem himself to become the conscience of a nation, there is hope for Tiger.

Just about anyone can pull off a makeover if they are methodical and determined enough. Tiger already has a charitable foundation doing goodworks. All he has to do is crank up the image of himself doing good works.

To complete the makeover, Tiger should go on Oprah and spend a half hour being contrite about what a shit he has been. That should do it.

3. Stephen Harper: Somewhere in the pile of report cards from the Rt. Honourable's high school days at Etobicoke Richview Collegiate in suburban Toronto, there is probably a notation that says "Stephen should try to be more of a people person." Sure, Harper made a lot of progress this past year with his piano and song debut at the National Arts Centre. People actually started to like him. But then it was business as usual with the Afghan detainees scandal and Stephen defaulting to the nastier side of his character.

Part of the problem may be that Harper hasn't quite made up his mind whether he wants to be a backroom boy -- where one can be a professional SOB -- or a modern retail politician, where one has to not only get along with people but actually like them. Time to decide.