Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ignatieff’


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.


Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

You would think that if ever there was a time to talk about open government in Canada, it would be now.  After all, this election was triggered by a contempt of parliament motion resulting from the Harper government’s failure to disclose information to the House of Commons–a dubious first in Canadian (and perhaps Commonwealth) history. 

Yet so far, after a week of campaigning, the only party leader to even mention open government has been Liberal Michael Ignatieff. This is disappointing, since the first week in an election campaign is when parties try to frame their narrative, but not really surprising–and open government activists have only themselves to blame.

If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks.  And yet,  a compelling, street level narrative to help create political space for such dramatic change is still missing in action.

Tomorrow, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff marks a more positive first in Canadian history as he unveils his party’s platform live on the internet  and takes online questions from Canadians. Details leaked through various news outlets suggest that the platform will feature a number of  open government commitments. 

The Liberals released an  open government position paper  last October, so it’s a safe bet that their platform will not have have many surprises; although one of the leaked tidbits, a “people’s question period”, suggests the party may have held back a few of their more intriguing proposals to give tomorrow’s announcement an air of freshness.

It will be interesting to see if Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and help create political space for a debate of open government during the last four weeks of this campaign.

It is no longer enough for tecchies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves  about the virtues of open government.  Let’s not kid anybody, open government is all about politics.

Open government is not a bureaucratic or technical issue. From the decision to move forward and make data available, to the choice of data, to the terms of use, to more citizen engagement, all these are highly political decisions and, in Canada, would involve the consent of Treasury Board and cabinet.

Anyone wanting to see government opening up, needs to explain why it matters in a way that is easily understood. They have to move the discussion out of the boardroom and into the kitchen, and they have to do it now.

A little over a week ago the government of Canada fell because it was too secretive. The question is will the open government movement in Canada  seize the moment, or will this historic opportunity to engage Canadians on a re-think of the foundations of Canadian parliamentary democracy be wasted.


Friday, April 1st, 2011

One of the most important functions of the campaign war room is to monitor the media in real time.  Every story, every clip and every broadcast is read, watched and heard and summarized.  To borrow a metaphor from the new computer lingo, the media reporting represents a cloud and clouds tend to drift and rarely, if ever, drifting back to the same position in the sky. 

The Media unit has to see both in detail and overall where the cloud is heading and whether it is darkening or letting more sun shine on the campaign below.  More importantly, the Media unit has to make sure that the senior campaign team have the media meteorological forecast as soon as possible. The campaign managers and the senior advisors will be doing a thousand other things and have to rely on others to keep them up-to-date.  The internal e-mail traffic in the war room is unrelenting: it is not unusual to have 15 to 30 messages per minute.

In a marked difference from earlier campaigns, in 2011 new media has become the dominant tool in terms of media response. It is not just Twitter or its variations. You can set alerts into Google news, Yahoo news or even proprietary aggregation programs that will let you know when stories break. Though of course the best way is still to talk to the reporter before he or she even files the story.  The best Media and Issue Management workers “know” long before the story goes on line. 

If a story breaks into the news cycle, a scramble begins to counter, correct, corroborate or deny. This is where the Issue Management team kicks in. The Issue Management manager, once alerted, will unleash the researchers first.  The facts have to be right – right from the start of any response. Facts in politics are extraordinarily elusive.  It is surprising at first how much of what is “known” is skewed, incomplete and just plain wrong.  With a bit of experience, one quickly learns to trust nothing until it has been researched, double-checked and re-checked, and even then you need to be wary because the sources might be suspect, mistakes are made when people are in a hurry and most fatally partisan researchers will read or hear a positive interpretation into the information which can distort their report, even if the report is just a collection of web links to previous stories.  The Issue Management researchers will at best have 15 minutes to get the “facts” and the background.

The emergence of the Internet has complicated matters in that time has become very elastic.  For example, the story of Stephen Harper’s “agreement” with the Bloc Quebecois in 2004 or a speech in 2003 can take on a contemporary life of its own long after even the people directly involved have forgotten all but the most elementary details.   

Historians will one day debate the “facts” around the 2004 “coalition” letter at length, meanwhile let’s get back to the war room and how it likely responded to Mr. Duceppe’s accusations.   

In that case, following the necessary due diligence, the Issue Management manager probably presented the findings to the senior campaign advisors who debate quickly their significance and formed a preliminary response.  The senior campaign advisors, typically 4 to 5 individuals, will have among themselves over 100 years of experience so matters moved swiftly. 

Typically then, the recommendation goes “to the bus,” the leader’s entourage.  The campaign manager alone will do the call. A lot rests on his – and it is usually a “his” shoulders – it is personal, urgent, important and consequential.  Frankly there is no room for mercy. None asked, none given.

With the basic response strategy agreed upon between the war room and “the bus,” the campaign advisors will craft the media messages.  They will be short, terse, and consistent and pointed.  The lines will then go back to “the bus” for final approval and a bit of a tweak and may be a little off because the “bus” folks usually do not have all the facts the war room folks have but believe they have the better instincts and experience– sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no.”  The leader as the one to be ultimately responsible for any media release – for which he or she will be held responsible for the rest of their political lives – has the final say.  

Then the pushback begins. The Issue Management managers will start with calling up the higher echelons of news editors and television producers in order to pave the way for the Media Unit personnel to start phoning reporters to let them know that a media release is due in moments.  Everyone will be a little edgy.  A media release can bounce well or bounce badly, or just be ignored completely. Reporters are inherently skeptical about party communications and fearful for their reputations if they are seen to being “played.” Still the great void which the modern media apparatus has created must be filled.  The spice must flow. And it does until the next issue appears on the event horizon.


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.


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.


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?