Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Party’


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

On Monday, in a comment piece published in the Globe and Mail, Don Tapscott lamented that our national parties had missed an opportunity to use social media to engage Canadians in this election.  In making his point, Tapscott refrerred to Barack Obama’s groundbreaking use of social media in the last presidential election–he didn’t have to go that far back. Just last fall, and right here in Canada, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi went from long shot to mayor, largely thanks to smart, funny and personal social-media engagement.

Three things distinguished his use of social media from that of our federal parties in this election: content, tone and genuine engagement. Mr. Nenshi was able to use social media to engage with a growing audience because, from day one, his message was positive, fresh and, most important, sharable. His commitment to dialogue built political capital and most importantly, trust. Ultimately, that translated into boots on the ground, contributions to the campaign and votes.

Social media in this federal election was used largely as a one-way bulletin board for partisan talking points and videos. Absent, for the most part, was any genuine engagement or content with broad non-partisan appeal.

To paraphrase Jack Layton in the leaders’ debate: By using social media as partisan echo chambers, our federal parties missed an opportunity to transform their campaigns and scored a big hash-tag fail.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Behind Michael Ignatieff’s snappy “Jack and Gilles” one liner dismissing Stephen Harper’s coalition charges, or explanations for Manitoba Conservative MP Shelly Glover’s “past her expiry date” comment, are dozens of Liberal and Conservative party operatives toiling in utter obscurity. 

Today’s major party campaign “war rooms,”  the partisan nerve centres  of the 2011 election, are objects of fascination for the media but for the most part retain an air of mystery. 

That not much is known about the war rooms, how they operate and who is behind the Great Oz’s curtain, is precisely how the parties prefer the situation.  While the media may be invited to an initial tour in order for the party to prove it is competent and well-funded enough to have a war room,  access to the sanctum is strictly forbidden once the campaign begins – other than of course for tightly scripted media briefings.

The machinery of campaigning was first portrayed in literature by James Joyce in the short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”  In the nearly 100 years since The Dubliners, much has changed  in the management of election campaigns, still the essentials remain – the division of labour into myriad small tasks, the importance of the campaign manager to bring all the pieces together and the need for a cause to motivate people to work much harder than they normally might at their regular job. 

An updated view of the “committee room” would start with a basic definition of what is the purpose of the war room.  It is a) the headquarters of the national campaign and b) the central office for the 308 constituency campaigns.  For the party in power, the war room is the bureaucracy of a government-in-exile: for the opposition it is the bureaucracy of a government-in-waiting. 

Physically, the war room is generally a floor in an inexpensive and non-descript suburban office building full of mostly young men and women with a few old guys lurking in the back.  The furniture is rented and the trappings are sparse and functional.  All of which raises the question why the government itself cannot be run in such a cost-conscious manner.

If you were to somehow get past the electronic keypad and the bored security guard, you could wander through the floor finding these islands of clumped work stations.  The largest unit is the leader’s Tour office.  Their responsibility is to make all the arrangements for the hundreds of meetings, greetings and speeches that the party leader will make during the course of even short campaign. 

Pressure to perform permeates the air in Tour: Either the leader gets to Saskatoon or he or she does not and the media lie in wait for such little slip ups as the leader in St. John and the luggage in St. John’s.

 As the leader’s schedule can change daily and rapidly, the Tour department work the longest hours and only get a breather when they are certain the boss is in bed, with the door locked from the inside.

Next in the archipelago of the war room will be the isle of candidate support.  These people liaise with the local campaigns making sure they have signs and brochures, are ready should the leader or an important speaker come to town and more or less stick to the script of the overall campaign.  The latter always causes headaches.  Constant tension arises from what the local campaign thinks they need to say to win support in the constituency and what the national campaign thinks they need to say to bolster and amplify the national messages. 

It is the bane of the war room when a local candidate decides that what he or she heard from a cousin has more appeal to voters than the messaging for which the top campaign officials will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to write, test in focus groups and polls and most importantly convinced the leader to approve.  A party cannot afford one war room staffer for each constituency so an individual worker will cover generally 8 to 10 constituencies grouped by definable regions within the province.

Working closely with the Candidate Support desks will be much smaller provincial and regional desks that look after broader political and message issues.  For instance, a Quebec desk and a British Columbia desk are set up in order to deal with the insular dynamics of those duchies.

A bigger island next door will be the Media Unit.  The leader’s campaign bus, plane or hay wagon will have its own elite media unit including a couple of official spokespersons.   The Media Unit in the war room is well away from the spotlight of the leader’s tour (of which more will be written later).  They monitor the local media, push out media releases following up with phone calls to receptive reporters and field the hundreds of media questions that flow in every day. 

They also run the now obligatory party television studio which besides serving as a media centre for press conferences also produces television clips to send to local TV stations.  The national television news services tend not to run these clips preferring their own tapes. However, a television station in rural Ontario is not going to send their one camera person on any leaders’ campaign bus.  They appreciate a bit of unique tape to which they can add their own commentary.

Our tour of the war room is not complete, but no one spends just one day visiting the Hawaiian Islands. More to come on the InterChange tour of backroom Canada.


Monday, February 7th, 2011

The federal Liberals yesterday launched “pucapab“, a French-language social media campaign they hope will become a “viral cri du coeur”.  While it may be too soon to say whether this latest  attempt to leverage social media for partisan purpose  actually catches on or fizzles out like so many others, this campaign  may yet prove that when it comes to online attack ads, less is more.

The name of the Liberal Facebook-based campaign is based on a colloquial contraction of the words “plus capable”, which translate roughly into “I can’t take it anymore”.  The animated YouTube video  at the centre of the campaign features a catchy tune and lyrics taking issue with Conservative policies on a pencil-sketched backdrop of  fighter jets, gallows and a padlocked Parliament.   

The  reason this latest effort may fare better than earlier online efforts by either party, is that the video is eminently sharable. It’s fresh and has one other thing going for it other online attack ads did not: It’s humorous without being mean-spirited.   Because it avoids harsh personal attacks, this is one video that moderate partisans will feel comfortable sharing with family and friends.

In an earlier blog post looking at Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s use of social media I said that an explanation for his social media success was that by being fresh and interesting, his campaign content encouraged sharing and in so doing tapped into the full power of social media. 

By being original, humorous and moderate this video campaign may just spark online (and off-line) conversations across a larger segment of the population and succeed where other harder-hitting campaigns failed. Will it go viral?  Time will tell.


Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Seeing Prime Minister Harper behind the bench for a charity hockey game a couple of weeks ago made me wonder what kind of a hockey coach he might have been.

Perhaps a player’s coach; leading with a pat on the back and a word of encouragement.  Or  maybe a motivator, squeezing the most out of his players with fiery grab-you-by-the-guts locker room speeches.

Not likely.

Stephen Harper would probably have been an X’s & O’s kind of coach, dissecting video for the smallest tactical weakness in the opposition–but  not your line-up-here-and-take-your-man  kind of  X’s & O’s. We’re talking X’s & O’s on a grand scale from a paradigm-shifting, game changing  kind of coach.

As a hockey coach, Stephen Harper would probably have been a combination Fred Shero and Jacques Lemaire.

The first, as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, elevated intimidation to a system, winning two Stanley Cups along the way. The second is widely credited with introducing the “Trap” to modern hockey (a tactical design that forced a re-writing of the NHL’s rule book).

One team intimidated its opponents; the other choked off the centre and stifled any offense.  

Using very different tactics, both coaches succeeded in forcing opposing teams to adapt to their  style and play against their strengths. They changed the way the game of hockey was played in much the same way that Stephen Harper is changing the way politics is played in Ottawa.

Just as Lemaire’s neutral zone trap  could puzzle a casual observer and even the odd expert,  some of the Prime Minister’s tactics are leaving pundits and his opponents scratching their heads.

But that is the simple beauty of it.

The anti-government approach to government;  the dumbing-down of policy debates; the anti-elite stance; the wrapping of the government’s narrative in a kind of faux common sense; have left the opposition parties stumbling in their attempts to define themselves.  

This strategy has been particularly damaging for the Liberals, who as a traditional “big tent”, “big idea” party are  struggling to define their narrative in a manner that resonates in the  narrow debates that characterize Ottawa politics today.    

Elite accommodation is all but gone as a way of doing business in Ottawa. And it seems clear that whether Canadians like it or not, the book on political engagement in Canada has been re-written.  The question is how long it will remain on the shelves.

Will its longevity compare to the two year run of the Broad Street Bullies who, once confronted by a team tougher than themselves (the Scotty Bowman-led Montreal Canadiens) never regained hockey supremacy? Or will the new playbook  fundamentally change the game as did Jacques Lemaire’s Trap?

Much will depend on how the Opposition responds and adapts.  In 1975, Montreal General Manger Sam Pollock brought in his own heavyweights to support speedy and talented players like Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. That was the end of the Broad Street Bullies’ hold on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

As for the Trap, it took a slew of rule changes by the NHL to restore some speed and grace to our national game. Until then, the only way to try to beat it was to dump and chase.

With our national political debates unlikely to feature much grace and finesse for the foreseeable future, the opposition parties will have no choice but to continue to dump and chase to try to beat Harper’s Trap.

That will suit  the “coach” just fine.


Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In my previous post I spoke of the overall reasons why a federal election this fall was unlikely – a lack of a mandate issue and no compelling damage to the Harper government.  Still the media continues to report the possibility of– to use the old Frank magazine lingo– “another running of the lizards.”  Perhaps a deeper examination might find reasons why an election may (or may not) occur. A place to start is an impressionistic evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties.

First the standard observation that political parties are waning as vehicles for public participation.   Robert Putnam in his well-received 2000 book, Bowling Alone, documented the loss of social capital as Americans, and though not mentioned specifically Canadians, have retreated from civic engagements in clubs, associations and particularly political parties.   More Canadian specific analysis comes from an IRPP 2006 report including two fascinating articles, “The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life” by R. Kenneth Carty and “Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity,” by William Cross and Lisa Young.  

They elaborate a point made earlier by University of Moncton professor Donald Savoie, that the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has emasculated many of the regional and issue-based political power centres represented within parties.  Parties, by this analysis, have largely foregone a policy role and simply become the machinery of electioneering. That’s a desirable outcome if the average Canadian is looking for some kind of government largesse, but less so if they actually want to have some influence upon policy decisions.  If an election becomes under the radar of what H.L. Mencken described as “a futures market in theft,” then political policy is far less important than brute marketing.

Here is the Conservative advantage. Not only does the Conservative party have a vestigial policy base they also have the marketing capability of at least a mid-sized supermarket chain. 

The Conservative party’s advantage, however, is limited by the very source of its success to date – rural Canada. It can put together a coalition, team and resources necessary to win a minority, but to get into majority territory requires something that has proven elusive for the Conservatives– the support of city voters.   The Liberals, and to a lesser extent the NDP, hold sway with urban voters at least in English Canada (which includes l’Isle de Montreal)

The situation is complicated by the fact that rural Quebec with its surprising, and perhaps artificial, urban outlook is quite content to park its vote with the Bloc Quebecois. The Conservative formula works everywhere in Canada, except where the party really needs it–Quebec. The Liberals and NDP, in the face of a united Conservative Party, face slow attrition back to their urban – read Toronto and Vancouver lairs – with not much hope of gaining more than the other’s seats.  As to the much ballyhooed coalition talks, the Liberals are simply too big to merge with the NDP and just won’t.  In short, the situation seems uninteresting and static.

In such a state, what is the point of an election?  For the Conservatives, they can possibly pick up a few seats in rural English Canada and lose some in Quebec. For the Liberals – as Liberals alone – they consolidate their base as the Toronto party but not much else. For the NDP, it is a risk to be pushed out entirely by vote splits. For the Bloc it is just another day at the office.

Not surprisingly, Canadians are unenthusiastic at the prospect of an attempt– it would be the fourth–to produce a different outcome.  

It may be that Canada becomes the North American equivalent of Belgium, doomed by ethnic and regional politics to a perpetual deadlock. For everyone’s sake, our political leaders should just stay quiescent until a decisive moment arrives.

Time is the great innovator and the current stalemate may not last longer than it already feels to have – about two decades. Advantage rests with the Conservatives but not in perpetuity.


Thursday, January 21st, 2010

  “Then you better start swimmin’ Or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is live-blogging on his Facebook page this afternoon.  Judging by the silence from mainstream media, most journalists are not impressed.

And who can blame them? Another baby-boomer politician on Facebook is not exactly a stop-the-presses story.

But if reporters looked beyond the obvious, they might just see an event that could very well signal a sharp change in how we conduct our politics and engage as citizens. For anyone paying attention to the growing chatter in the social media environment, Michael Ignatieff’s live Facebook conversation is happening at a tipping point.

Two recent events in particular signal a change in the prevailing domestic winds: the creation of an anti-prorogation Facebook page and the social-media response to the Haitian disaster.

Today, all but the most hardened sceptics or partisans are admitting that there might be something to the outpouring of online anger and frustration channelled by the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament  (now over 200,000 strong).  

And look at how social media sites are being used to share information and engage Canadians in Haitian relief efforts. You’ll see a different, more synergistic expression of solidarity than at any other time in our history. While Facebook, MySpace and other social networking platforms were around at the time of Hurricane Katrina or the South East Asian tsunami, this time the response has a different feel. It is not only more pervasive and widespread, but more organic.  

How can we explain this?

There are probably two key factors at play. We may have achieved a degree of critical mass in Canada with respect to social networking participation across demographics; and social media sites create both a platform for sharing information quickly within social networks and a place where subtle peer pressure is applied.

Today, Michael Ignatieff takes his first go at live blogging. In doing so he becomes the first federal party leader to use social media to engage directly and in real time with Canadians.  More importantly, taking a page from president Obama’s playbook, he taps into a powerful tool for citizen engagement that until today, had been largely neglected in  our country.

If the Liberal party extends aggressive online engagement to its spring policy conference, it could be riding a wave that changes the way the game is played; not only for the party, but for Canadian politics.

Mixing Messages

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

In my last blog I wrote that the federal Liberals had a competitive advantage over the Harper Conservatives because they weren’t saddled by the “rigid command-and-control mentality that … characterizes Conservative communications strategy”. But a failed Liberal PR stunt earlier today suggests that a little planning,  control and message discipline still have their place in effective communications.

 This is what CBC reporter Rosemary Barton had to say about it:

Running communications for a political party is a trying task at the best of times.

Even more so when you’re competing with…yourself.

Picture it: the Hall of Honour of the Centre Block. Liberal MP Wayne Easter and the party’s spin-machine, Warren Kinsella, camped outside the door to the Conservative caucus meeting. Clearly waiting to do something.

But, what…

Three sombre -looking Liberal staffers stand behind Easter with 8 x 10 photos of Conservative MPs who have, according to Easter, denounced the whole cheque-signing “scandal”.

Easter explains how this is must be stopped.

Wouldn’t be a bad little stunt if only: in the room right next door the Liberal caucus is launching the Pink Book on women’s issues.

Cameras and reporters gathered around Easter.

And although there were other reporters and cameras in the room for the launch, one media event can’t outdo the other.

Suddenly, Ignatieff’s director of communications, Jill Fairbrother arrives in the scrum and abruptly whisks Easter away.

She didn’t look pleased.

And the “stunt” ended awkwardly.

A sign of duelling communications strategies?

For the record, Jill Fairbrother says the two events were intended to take place 20 minutes apart, but ended up being at the same time because the Conservatives left from the back door.”

 The problem is not so much crossed wires or the Conservative caucus’ disappearing act but that the Liberals planned two “competing” media events on the same day.   

Planning a PR stunt designed to embarrass Conservative MPs on the same day that the party’s Women’s Caucus releases its platform recommendations was bound, at best, to limit media attention to both. At worst, it ran the risk of crowding out coverage of an event designed to showcase, among other things, the role and place of women in the Liberal party.

Talk about mixing messages.


Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

A story in this week’s Hill Times suggested that the federal Conservatives are better positioned to take advantage of social media in the upcoming election campaign than their Liberal rivals.

What of this?

The article,  as is often the case in discussions of online campaigns, confuses traditional Internet applications and social web 2.0 strategies, notably by failing to explain that social media derives its full reach from the conversations it engenders, not its usefulness as a bulletin board. But if the Conservative Party is, in fact, as the article suggests, a few strides ahead of the Liberals when it comes to online campaigning, most of this advantage appears to be built on a traditional online engagement platform that  plays out only on the periphery of effective new media political campaigning.

In this regard, the Liberal Party is actually better positioned to take advantage of new media simply because it is not saddled with the rigid command-and-control mentality that currently characterizes Conservative communications strategy. This is not to suggest that we are seeing a creative and effective use of new media by the Liberals, only that a free-flowing social media conversation with Canadians–the hallmark of effective social media engagement–is more likely to emanate from the Grits than the Tories. This is a competitive advantage that the Liberal Party would be wise to exploit.

But a social media conversation with Canadians would have made the most sense for Michael Ignatieff if it had started last spring and had been used to solicit input and reaction to his party’s values and vision as well as in exploring possible policy options. Now that the Liberal leader is in major-speech mode, perhaps the best strategy available will be a more limited engagement using social media conversations to explain and listen. Even in this limited mode, though, social media engagement could help establish the Liberal leader as someone who listens and cares–useful in brand differentiation.

The last U.S. campaign is instructive as to the full potential of social media as both a powerful mobilizing force and dissemination tool . In addition to engaging Americans in a mobilizing political conversation that resulted in countless volunteers and millions of dollars for the presidential camapign, the Obama team used new media to share information (talking points, background, etc.) with their supporters and the online community in real-time, often immediately before and after major media or campaign events. This was designed not only to counter GOP counter-spin in blogs and online discussion boards, but more importantly, to give supporters arguments they could use around the water cooler and the kitchen table.

If we take the Obama online campaign model to illustrate, Mr. Ignatieff’s major economic speech before the Toronto Board of Trade on Monday would have seen this kind of information being communicated through traditional means such as e-mail blasts to Liberal members and the online community, but also through Twitter, Facebook, etc.. This did not happen.  A summary of the Liberal leader’s speech was pushed out by the campaign through Facebook and Twitter the following day, almost 24 hours after the fact and after most interested Canadians had already formed an opinion.

While time may be running out for a new media conversation between Michael Ignatieff and Canadians, the Liberal campaign can still use the power of social media to energize and mobilize its base by giving it the tools it needs to support its views and beliefs in all of its social interactions. 

Far from being an attempt at courting the “snob vote” as U.S. based Conservative strategist Patrick Muttard dismissed early Liberal TV ads, such a social media strategy would help take the Liberals’ message to what many see as a Conservative preserve: the Timmys of the nation.  Double-double anyone?