a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Could the Liberals' strange weekend be the beginning of a party renaissance?

You have to give the Grits credit for having a weekend policy conference that was, well, different from most political gabfests.

Instead of the usual partisan hoopla before a friendly crowd, the Liberals had speakers telling the party faithful in Montreal what they were doing wrong and why Canada's former natural governing party needed a collective slap upside the head.

Retired diplomat Robert Fowler went so far as to tell the Liberals they had lost their souls and principles to the point of saying anything to get back in power. Ouch.

In fairness, Fowler also accused the governing Tories of pandering to the Jewish vote to the point of ignoring the truth to win a majority. But that part of Fowler's speech was not as widely reported because it did not fit the media's issue frame of Liberals being in deep trouble.

But Fowler, Canada's longest serving ambassador to the United Nations before he retired, told the Liberals they don't stand for much any more.

In another bizarre twist, the Liberals head from Derek Burney. Yes, that Derek Burney, the chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the head of the Tories' transition team when they took power in 2006.

It is no secret that Burney and the current Prime Minister can't stand each other. Burney no doubt relished an opportunity to send a message to Stephen by being a guest of the Liberals.

Regardless of what you might think of this bizarre conference on the weekend, be sure of one thing. It was part of deliberate strategy.

The Liberals are trying to turn their problems into a campaign asset just as they were able to make an impossibly large deficit into a political asset in the 1990s.

First you say the worst possible things about yourself (or in this case invite someone to your function to say the same things) before the rival party can. That way you have established a bottom benchmark in the minds of the media, as in things are so bad even the speakers at a Liberal conference told them they had lost their principles.

The Liberals likely now hope the media will be looking for recovery from that bottom point here on in. If the strategy works, the Liberals will have changed the media's narrative from a plummeting party to one that is recovering.

This time, the strategy may not be so easy. The media, after all, could decide the Liberals are a spent force as Canada's centrist party and turn their attentions elsewhere.

But the Liberals are likely betting there is enough fatigue with the Harper regime out there, that Canadians will want to believe there is an alternative government in the waiting.

They might be right.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More strange messages from Ottawa

For a city obsessed with message control, it is truly amazing how many muddled messages come out of Ottawa. There have been some outstanding examples in the past week or so.

Let's start with the Liberals for a change.

For months, the Liberals have been talking about their great policy renewal conference, which will be held this weekend in Montreal.

This is supposed to be a seminal session for policies to be implemented when the voters come to their senses and put a Liberal back in 24 Sussex Drive.

In other words, it is supposed to be a modern version of the 1960 Liberal thinkfest at Kingston that resulted in a Canadian flag, national healthcare and the Canadian Pension Plan, or a repeat of the 1992 Aylmer, QC., conference that resulted in the famous Red Book of promises that put Jean Chretien in power the following year.

Late last week, the party brain trust announced Liberal MPs and Senators are not invited to the 2010 conference because the event is supposed to be non-partisan. That's right, a conference to ponder policies and platforms that will put the Grits back in power is supposed to be non-partisan with the absence of Grits who are in Parliament already.

The decision was probably well intentioned -- most dumb ideas usually are -- but what kind of message does that send? If the Liberals really think they can regain power by excluding those who must answer to the voter, perhaps they are demonstrating that they need more time on the Opposition benches.

It's the dumbest idea since somebody decided the Conservatives could remain free of corruption if lobbyists were told to stay the hell away from annual Christmas party. Maybe that person is now working for the Liberals.

As for convoluted messages by the governing party, there have been quite a few since the ill-fated (and quite stupid) bid to reword the national anthem.

First the government Tories said their much ballyhooed G8 initiative on mothers and childcare would no include family planning. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the program is about preserving life.

Then International Development Minister Bev Oda said family planning was in the program without explaining the reason behind the flip-flop.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the so-called 10 per centers -- partisan circulars MPs can send at taxpayer expense to other ridings in amounts equaling 10 per cent of their own constituencies -- should be banned. But his own caucus voted against getting rid of them.

Harper also says Helena Guergis, the Status of Women minister, will stay in cabinet. But a growing number of Tory MPs are telling the media of an internal push to get rid of her.

In the Tories' case, the confusion is probably a direct result of a government obsessed with managing (or trying to manage) the Afghan detainee crisis at the expense of everything else. This is how scandal eats away at a government.

Strange messages all, but the main message to the voters likely is that the two main parties are where they deserve to be in the polls -- deadlocked with no signs of growing much support.


A few weeks ago, I declared this blog a Tiger-free zone. But the two televised interviews Tiger Woods gave on the Golf Channel and ESPN over the weekend deserve a mention out of fairness.

The haughtiness Tiger showed in that one-way press conference a few weeks ago was gone. In the the weekend interviews, Tiger was quite clearly sincere, contrite and forthcoming.

He may not have saved some of the sponsors he lost. But had he done those interviews in the beginning of his ordeal he likely would have saved himself a lot of grief.

Now he should be allowed to rebuild his life.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Now we have a viral prime minister

Tonight at 7 p.m. EDT Prime Minister Stephen Harper may make political history by conducting a virtual town hall on YouTube to answer selected questions.

The Prime Minister's Office says the questions he answers will be those determined to be the most popular in an online poll that was closed off Sunday. Even before online voting concluded, there was wide speculation about which questions will be chosen for answers.

After all, it is hard to imagine a control-freak government that has maintained iron-fist control over information and communications with its citizens is going to permit a freewheeling discussion on issues on or offline.

But we'll see.

It may take a few days before all assessments are in about the PM's virtual performance. Clearly, he is taking a risk.

Ever since he prorogued Parliament on Dec. 30, Harper has been under constant attack and mockery in the social media. The latest is the Facebook site, " Can This Onion Ring Get More Fans Than Stephen Harper?" The onion ring is winning handily.

The polls have been showing for months that Harper is losing ground with Generation Y voters and soon-to-be voters. In fact, the kids' dislike of him has been getting palpable.

So it is understandable that the Prime Minister's communications brain trust would want to try YouTube for some direct engagement.

Whether the PM does well tonight or not, we likely are seeing a new dimension in Canadian politics. Others will try it as Generation Y gains more clout in polling numbers.

Anything that encourages citizen engagement is welcome in a democratic society. But already there are questions that should be debated.

For example, if Google, which controls YouTube, decides to broadcast a partisan speech by the Prime Minister, as it did last week, should it not offer the same consideration to the Opposition?
So far it hasn't.

The television networks follow protocols of political fairness when it comes to face time with the voters. Shouldn't Google?

And ultimately, if the PM and his handlers want to win over disaffected voters they might want to try a low-tech solution -- losing the compulsion to control all discussion.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A budget speech without numbers

Mario Cuomo once advised politicians to campaign in poetry, govern in prose.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has given himself an exception from that advice in this year's budget speech. Or was the budget just another stop on the campaign circuit while the Tories continue to seek their elusive majority?

Budget Lite is probably the best way to describe the speech Flaherty gave in the Commons last week. It appears to be number-free, which is odd considering it was after all a speech about how the taxpayers' money is to be spent.

Perhaps it was because the minister tables the world's first fully tweetable budget. Or perhaps it was because the government feels it simply doesn't have the political capital to talk hard numbers with the voters.

The Tories' Throne Speech may have been an hour plus in length. But the budget speech was barely 20 minutes of one-sentence paragraphs, or should that be factoids.

In fact, most of the sentences could easily have been tweeted within the 160-character limit.

So if the Budget Speech could easily have been mistaken for a stump speech to the Whitby Rotary Club, how much credibility can the 2010 fiscal plan have with financial markets and Canadians as a whole?


DOST TO DUST: Just as I was finishing this blog entry about rewording O Canada along came the announcement from the Prime Minister's Office that our national anthem was just fine the way it is.

Apparently, voters were angered by the suggestion that a key phrase in the lyrics -- "In all they sons command" -- might be replaced with the awkward "Thou does in us command", to make the anthem gender-neutral. So the government beat a hasty retreat from part of their own Throne Speech.

Dost may be toast. But there is still an issue that should concern Canadians.

The Tories are not the first government to try to use an emotional motherhood issue to distract public attention away from its problems. And they won't be the last.

As long as the media can be counted on to go for the shiny thing, as a fish does, there will be fake issues to distract voters.

Had the government not come to its senses on Friday, the media would still be dining out on this fake issue. Perhaps the parliamentary press gallery should be taking a critical look at the way media cover politics.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Nice ending for Olympics

There probably wasn't a better way to open the ending of an Olympics on Canadian soil -- making light of ourselves. The awkward malfunction that delayed the lighting of the indoor cauldron at the opening ceremonies was finally made right.

A mime went through the motions of pulling the fourth arm of the cauldron from the floor of B.C. Place and then former speed skating champion Catriona Le May Doan set the mechanical arm ablaze.

It was a fine example of Canadian self-deprecation and humour. It was also a fine way of telling the world that despite our sudden conversion to loud patriotism and "Own The Podium" bragging, we haven't lost our humble and polite ways.

The Vancouver Olympics may have started with a terrible tragedy with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili followed by a whole series of embarrassing mishaps. But the final week of the Olympics was every Canadian's dream with a record 14 gold medals for Canada and 26 in all for third place standing.

Canada may not have been able to "Own The Podium" as promised. But the third-place finish, including the hockey victory over the U.S., was close enough for most Canadians. The Vancouver Olympics will always be remembered as an important turning point in our national psyche.

Even the British media had nice things to say at the conclusion of these Olympic games.

What will be interesting is whether corporate Canada continues to support our athletes in the next four years. The federal government has already signaled it is not prepared to shell out the way it did for games on Canadian soil.

Another interesting post-mortem issue is did our gold medals match the sports which got the most "Own The Podium" funding? Or would those gold medals have been won anyway?

But that question is for when national euphoria has subsided. Canadians should be grateful to organizers who were able to turn an accident-prone Olympiad around and make Canada very proud.

Canadians should also be grateful that the Harper government showed some restraint during these Olympics.

It wasn't a good sign when the official logo looked like a knock off of the Conservative Party's insignia. But aside from official appearances by the Prime Minister and one broadcast interview, the Tories kept a respectful distance.l

Perhaps the Tories have learned something.