a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

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.

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