Canadians are riveted by the upcoming election, which promises to be the most exciting in the country’s history. Party leaders are campaigning hard, delivering carefully-crafted messaging to as many voters are possible.
The communications teams behind Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are working for their candidates every step of the way, developing responsive public relations strategies. The tactics they’re using will be familiar to most government relations practitioners, who are increasingly using digital communications tools and considering how their messages will be received by various publics.
While examining events on the campaign trail, we’ve noticed more than a few PR tactics that could be used effectively in advocacy campaigns. Which of Canada’s potential future leaders is using these tactics most effectively? This post will focus on answering that question.
The parties as brands
Before delving into tactics, let’s do a quick assessment of the public sentiments evoked by Canada’s largest federal parties and their leaders. The Conservative, NDP and Liberal brands have all undergone some fairly significant changes in recent years, which is one of the reasons this election has been so interesting.
Conservative: In recent years, economic recession and international terrorist attacks have shaped the priorities of many voters. The Conservative party has attempted to brand itself as the only choice for Canadians who are concerned about national security and the economy. These efforts have enabled Stephen Harper to project the image of a strong, decisive leader in some camps (in others, he is – to put it mildly – less popular.
NDP: For decades, many Canadians associated the NDP with radical, far-left ideology. Under the late Jack Layton, the party was able to gain some national traction. Thomas Mulcair has built on this traction by working to mold the NDP brand to convey practical change and sustainable economic growth. In terms of his personal brand, Mulcair is widely viewed as principled and hard working, but he’s locked in an ongoing battle with the nickname “Angry Tom”.
Liberal: The Liberal party has been rebranding in an attempt to disassociate itself from past perceptions of corruption and egotism. Justin Trudeau has emerged as the party’s new face. His familiar last name simultaneously reminds us of former Liberal success while creating an opportunity for the party to speak about (and subsequently distance itself from) the past.
Many of Trudeau’s recent actions – including his expulsion of all Liberal senators – are meant to send a clear message: this Liberal party is different from the one you remember. The leader’s upbringing has also been used against him, providing fodder for Conservative attacks.
The leaders and their PR efforts
Much has been made of the PMO’s control over Stephen Harper’s image. But how damaging are his chilly relations with the press? The Conservative party’s larger strategy is less about the prime minister’s personal brand than his ability to deliver key messages to his support base. In this sense, is he winning the public relations war?
The truth is, in the era of the permanent campaign, all candidates are guarded and extremely image-conscious. They strive to project warmth and authority, to appear relatable yet prime ministerial. Strongly-stated opinions are, for the most part, frowned upon.
Still, a lot can be learned by examining our federal politicians’ cautious forays into (and strategic avoidance of) the Canadian media. Let’s take a look at some of the tools our leaders are using to control their messaging.
Biographies: Both Trudeau and Mulcair have released memoirs in the lead-up to this year’s election. The purpose of these releases is clear; they allow the candidates to define themselves before their already-familiar images are set in stone. For Trudeau, a book provides the opportunity to dispel notions of the privileged interloper; for Mulcair, it’s a place to showcase his softer side.
The downside is, fewer people are reading than ever before. On the upside, memoirs are frequently consulted by journalists searching for biographical facts, so the messages they contain often gain wide exposure.
Campaign Ads: There’s been a lot of talk about the Tory attack ads assailing Justin Trudeau. The well-known “interview” video has been dissected (and not infrequently mocked) by journalists and commentators since it hit the airwaves. A Conservative ad targeting Mulcair reportedly fared less well in testing, as did an NDP ad summing up the Tories’ scandals under Harper.
Trudeau, for his part, has publicly decried negative campaigning. But his principled stand may not impress the public as much as the attacks against him have seeped into its subconscious. A change in tactics could be beneficial. As Warren Kinsella notes, one of the best moments for the Liberals in the past two years came when Trudeau “did actually throw some punches in that [August 6] leaders debate.”
Photos: The importance of campaign photography as a PR tool can not be overstated. A recent Globe and Mail article offered the impressions of Michael Davis, a photo editor unfamiliar with Canada’s prime ministerial candidates.
According to Davis, Stephen Harper appears “distant” in his photographs, which are “not at all dynamic and deep.” The decision to appear in more formal contexts may have an impact on the photographic impression Harper gives off. In the past, he was mocked for pictures that showed him posing with kittens while wearing a sweater vest.
Failures aside, photography has figured prominently in the prime minister’s PR strategy. A Toronto Star article notes that Sandra Buckler, the first press spokesperson for Harper, “wasted little time…apprising the capital’s media crew that it was the photos that really mattered.” It’s likely that the more formal photosgraphs do a good job of impressing the right values upon his support base.
For Trudeau and Mulcair – candidates trying to win over as large a segment of the population as possible – more dynamic images are necessary. How successful have they been so far? Davis notes that while Trudeau’s photos project a “sincere, caring candidate and human”, Mulcair’s depict a “one note expression” that can seem insincere.
Debate Coaching: In politics, debate coaching is crucial. Trusted communications advisors put candidates through an intense preparation process that starts with goals identification. A CBC article notes that different strategies will be adopted based on whether the candidate “want[s] to get by or decisively win”. This was evident in the August 6 Macleans debate. Many noted that Harper appeared more relaxed than the other candidates, perhaps because his focus was on reiterating key messages rather than winning over new voters.
One of Mulcair’s goals must have been to dispel his “Angry Tom” persona by appearing calm and collected, while Trudeau aimed to convey his competency amid a barrage of accusations that he’s “just not ready.” Results for both candidates were mixed. Mulcair was clearly coached to smile, but he did so at a frequency that lead many to refer to him as “creepy”. For the most part, Trudeau exceeded expectations, but some noted that he was overly aware of the camera.
Lessons for government relations practitioners
So, which of our national leaders is winning the PR war? It depends on what you consider a win. The current administration has been very effective at understanding its target audience and insolating the prime minister from scandal within the Conservative party. Mulcair has created and repeated messages that speak to Canadians outside of the NDP’s traditional support base, ushering in an unprecedented wave of party support. And Trudeau has succeeded in putting a fresh face on the Liberal party, convincing many of its transparency and commitment to ethical conduct.
More important than who’s winning is what we can learn from the candidates as a group. There are a few major lessons here for those who work beneath the public relations umbrella, including government relations practitioners.
Appeal to emotion. Tell stories. Play up the weak points of solutions that oppose your own. Emphasize the key traits you want to associate with those you advocate for. And remember, inconsistency (in the form of an out-of-left-field comment or an ill-conceived sweater vest) can cost you.
Curious about the parliamentary candidates in your riding? Gnowit is providing a free overview – including sentiment analysis and visual analytics – of all of the media coverage surrounding the candidates running in each riding. Check it out here.
Feature image courtesy: Niuton may