a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frame Wars: The election so far

Well so much for all those predictions that the Tories would be running on their economic record while the Opposition would be hammering away at the Harper government’s record on ethics.

The first weekend of the 2011 election has wrapped up and the word, coalition, is on everyone’s lips.

Stephen Harper may be the first Prime Minister in Canadian history whose government has been found in contempt of Parliament. He may be the guy who came into office on the ethics ticket only to be branded as ethically challenged by the Opposition.

But without doubt he is a master at manipulating the public agenda and the media.

Within 24 hours of losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons, Harper managed to put his accusers on the defensive over a hypothetical possibility that should the Tories not gain a majority, the three Opposition parties will gang up and form an evil coalition to take control of Parliament and void the will of the people.

As proof, he cited the ill-fated 2008 coalition by the Opposition to seek the Governor General’s permission to form a coalition government after the 2008 election.

Harper claims the Liberals and NDP plan to take control of the country with the separatist Bloc Quebecois as a partner.

Actually the proposed coalition only consisted of the Liberals and New Democrats. The Bloc only agreed not to vote against the coalition for two years. But what is the truth in politics when you have a convincing narrative.

The feat is all the more remarkable when you consider that Harper himself tried to hatch such a coalition after the 2004 election in a letter with NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

The Prime Minister has been called everything from a hypocrite to a liar (by Duceppe). But still his narrative seems to be sticking with most of the voting public as the truth so far.

To borrow a term that came out of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is being ``swift boated.’’ In that election, a group of American veterans of naval swift boats used in the Vietnam War came forward to claim Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ candidate for president, and a decorated war hero, wasn’t the swift boat commander he was cracked up to be. He was a fraud, according to the swift boat veterans.

The allegations by the swift boat veterans, who were Republicans, turned out to be BS. But it didn’t matter. During the election campaign they framed Kerry as a fraud.

The swift boat episode is a classic case study in the process of issue framing in politics. Whoever can set the ``frame’’ around political issues usually can control the narrative of an election campaign and put the opponent on the defensive.

The Liberals of course didn’t help themselves by being vulnerable when the election began on Saturday. They should have moved before Parliament was dissolved last Friday to rule out participation in a coalition. That would have been getting in front of the story.

Instead, Ignatieff stumbled when the question was to put to him at first and then issued a press release a day later to deny any intention of forming a coalition. Score one for Harper.

The Liberals could have released ads featuring Harper’s 2004 coalition letter. That way they could have planted the idea in voters’ minds that Harper is a hypocrite who will stop at nothing to gain power. Harper of course denies he had any intention of coalition in 2004.

Now Harper has been able to frame or define Ignatieff as a usurper of democracy. Harper has also been able to demonize coalitions when they are in fact a legitimate part of parliamentary democracy.

Remember, this country was founded because Sir John A. Macdonald was able to form a coalition with Sir George √Čtienne Cartier in support of Confederation.

So far this election campaign has been looking a lot like Bambi versus Godzilla.

What’s interesting is why Harper is not running on his government’s record on the economy, or anything else. Why the fear frame, particularly when Harper has such a commanding lead in the polls?

Perhaps it is because Harper knows Canadians are still uneasy about him regardless of what they might think of Ignatieff. And the only way the Tories can win a majority is by stampeding a fearful electorate, or so he seems to think.

But Harper’s framing tactic could back fire yet. His former chief of staff, Tom Flanagan, has come forward to say, yes, his old boss was looking at possibly forming a coalition with the NDP and the Bloc to take control in 2004.

Score one for Bambi.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blog delayed this week

I am about to go into the budget lockup this morning. So this week's Spindoctor blog is delayed by a day or so.
Gord McIntosh

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Branding Canada as Harperland

Amid all the things going on in the world, it might seem like a small development. But a federal decision to direct civil servants to refer to their employer as the Harper Government rather than the Government of Canada seems to have hit a national nerve.

One cartoonist has doctored the Canadian flag by replacing the centre Maple Leaf with the Great Man’s face. There have been alterations of the government’s familiar Canada logo to include you know who. There was even a cartoon about Elections Harper.

Even the Tories themselves are getting in on the fun by taking time out from bashing Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to run feel-good TV ads of our prime minister working at his desk for a better tomorrow for you and I.

It should be clear to anyone that a decision was made months ago at party headquarters to treat Stephen Harper as the Conservatives’ prime asset whenever the election does come.

And why not? The Tories have successfully defined and cast Ignatieff as a hapless political tourist who thought he would come home from Harvard to lead the country of his birth.

Harper has done better in the polls than his own party. Most Canadians were convinced long ago that Harper is a capable political leader, whether they liked him or not.

Just a few weeks ago when the Tories seemed to be on cruise control toward majority government, party insiders were probably congratulating themselves on a very successful branding strategy. Canada’s economy is better than most countries’ and why not position the prime minister to take the credit?

The late Harold Macmillan was asked by a journalist when he was the prime minister of Britain what was the biggest challenge a government could face. His reply was ``Events, my dear boy. Events.’’

The prime minister’s handlers here in the People’s Republic of Harperland may now be wishing they had remembered Macmillan’s words.

The Harper government has been hit with a tsunami of allegations of contempt of Parliament, doctoring document lying, cheating and interfering with the Access to Information law.

The Opposition can’t believe its luck. The sudden reversal of fortune for the government (oops, that is the Harper Government) is taking attention away from the economy and casting it on ethics. That would be the government’s ethics and therefore Harper’s.

The sudden decisions by two more prominent western ministers to retire from politics over the weekend will likely mean the attention on Harper’s governing style will be all the more intense.

If ethics does become the ballot question in the next election, Harper’s style of government could cost him his long coveted majority.

Then again Canadians’ opinion of politics may be so low, that nothing in Ottawa shocks them anymore. No doubt the opposition parties will be weighing this question before deciding whether to defeat the government next week.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How about making sense of political polls?

There is an interesting cat fight going on among political pollsters about the accuracy of their products.

Last week the pollsters’ trade association, the Market Research and Intelligence Association, took out an ad in the Hill Times, the newspaper serving Parliament Hill, to assure politicians and the rest of us that polls by their members were in fact accurate and professionally prepared.

The ad didn’t get much notice. But it should have.

Think of what the reaction would have been if the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association had taken out an ad to assure us that cars made by its members were safe, or if say the Canadian Bankers Association publicly proclaimed that its members were competent enough to take care of depositors’ money.

These days political polls are all over the map. One week the governing Conservatives have a 16-point lead over the Liberals. The following week, another poll says the lead is a much slimmer at eight points. Canadians are well within their rights to ask what gives.

As a result of the wide variance, Allan Gregg, the Harris-Decima pollster, has publicly questioned the reliability of some of his competitors. As a result, the polling industry is furious with Gregg. Hence, last week’s ad.

This debate likely will continue. With growing privacy concerns, call display and growing reliance on mobile phones, polling by telephone is getting awfully challenging. Some pollsters have already switched to online polling.

Does the industry really know how accurate its polls are?

Gregg does have a point when he says we put too much faith in individual polls and that they are over-reported by the media.

There is an old political adage that says polls may not matter. But trends in polls do.

We should be probably following trends instead of reacting to one particular poll.

The problem is that the media treat their own exclusive polls as the gospel truth while ignoring those commissioned by their competitors.

I have complained about this before. But it is worth repeating. The media are short changing the public in the way polls are reported by pretending their own polls are the last word.

If the polls are all over the map, that is what should be reported. If the trend is in one party’s favour that too should be reported.

The media should also have people on staff who are able to critically analyse methodology.

We live in an increasingly numerate society. Audiences are ready for a more sophisticated look at political polls.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How Tories managed coverage of election charges

Whether they realized it or not, Canadians witnessed an interesting case study last week of how governments can and do manage the media.

On the evening of Feb. 24, an official of the Conservatives was busy phoning around the Parliamentary Press Gallery to advise that Elections Canada had charged four key members of the Tory campaign team in the 2006 election, plus the party itself.

Those charged included Senators Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, both key backroom players.

Why would someone tip off the media that their organization and colleagues are facing a whole raft of charges by a federal agency over expenses in the 2006 election?

It was all about getting in front of the story. As any media strategist will tell you, it is better that the media carry your version of the bad news rather than someone else’s.

And in this case, the tactic appears to have worked.

In the first batch of stories that appeared overnight Thursday and into Friday, the charges were described as administrative rather than criminal. Most outlets quoted the Conservative party as saying this. But some didn’t bother with attribution.

For the most part, the media tried to present their reporting as the result of working Parliament Hill sources, when in reality they were recipients of a gang leak. Or is that a mass spoon feeding?

Nor did anyone bother explaining there is really no such thing as an administrative charge.

Some of these charges carry a hefty fine of $25,000 and the possibility of one year in jail upon conviction.

The following day Elections Canada and the public prosecutor’s office released the actual charges and began setting the record straight. And the media dutifully reported what they said. They also reported the outraged reaction of the Opposition parties.

However, by that time the story was already growing stale as old news.

Since Parliament was off last week, the Tories had a huge advantage in getting its version of the facts planted in most people’s memories. By Monday, there was scant reference to the election charges in the media. Case closed.

In most people’s minds this is the latest development in a longstanding dispute between the Tories and Elections Canada. After all, the Federal Court had ruled in the Tories’ favour last year about the party’s financial methods in the 2006 election. The ruling is under appeal.

Most people likely believe Elections Canada is looking for payback. However, there are elements of this story that has been lost in the clamour.

The charges were not actually laid by Elections Canada. They were laid by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which had to be convinced there was a reasonable chance of conviction. What prompted federal prosecutors to proceed now?

Also, these charges were laid on Wednesday, Feb. 23. Why no news release by Elections Canada or the Public Prosecutor Office? Authorities don’t usually leave the chore of announcing prosecutions up to those facing prosecution.

Let’s hope there are journalists enterprising enough to investigate those questions.

Nobody can blame a political party for trying to play its ace as best it can in the court of public opinion. But we can blame the media for allowing themselves to be played.