a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.


  1. If you are keeping an eye on the anti-prorogue Facebook page, you'll know that the Cons are making an effort to stem the tide. But it's pathetic. They tell the same lie time after time without realizing that in the Internet age, it's childishly easy to pull up a complete refutation of any old story. They get abusive -- one just said that the people on the board were completely politically ignorant. People there are treating them as figures of fun. It's one thing to know where a threat is -- it's another to counter it. They're failing miserably at the latter.

  2. It's about time government and traditional media realize the power of social media. It's one thing to ignore a few scathing letters to the editor from a few people who care enough to write in. It's totally different trying to ignore over 100,000 people who can update/complain/vent at every minute of every day, and who have come together to do it.