This morning, as with every morning, I awoke to CBC Radio’s Calgary Eyeopener. I enjoy beginning my day with the news as reported by Canada’s public broadcaster (who are more interested in quality reporting than their advertisers). Today at about 6:20 AM they had on a regular guest political commentator: Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley, who seems to be a rather astute political commentator.
She was being interviewed on the topic that public and media opinions seem to suggest that Michael Ignatieff and the federal Liberals have benignly wasted their summer opportunities: failing to make headlines, calling the government to task, shedding light on policy initiatives or otherwise garnering any media attention whatsoever. The popular suggestion creeping its way across Canada is that Ignatieff has been off the map, as though he’s been taking holidays. The truth of the matter is that he’s been cris-crossing Canada all summer, including a whirlwind first week of July, where he was in Fredericton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton. I was with him for the latter two (photos here). Riley wisely suggested that rather than this being an issue of Liberal malaise, it was instead indicative of an inept communications/ media relations department.
Perhaps it is not popularly known (another communications debacle?), but the space between doing something and everyone hearing about it falls entirely into the lap of communications. As much as I would love everyone in the world to know I’m writing this blog post, for example, unless I tell them about it, only those proactive enough will ever find out. If I truly wanted to tell the world and had some resources at my disposal, I would consider developing and nurturing media relationships, writing and sending them press releases, following up to establish some sort of connection to/with them, engaging some publicity stunts and photo ops (organizing “how many days until he visits his riding” rallies outside the often vacant offices of Jason Kenney and Rob Anders?), and perhaps buying some advertising in key outlets that best attract my target audience. In my case it would be print publications like the Globe and Mail, The Walrus; online pubs like thetyee.ca and theglobeandmail.com; on TV stations like CBC Newsworld, Showcase, and maybe a few highway and roadside billboards (ha!). Once the word was out, it would be up to me to substantiate the effort with content.
The Liberals enjoy the luxurious position of having a very substantiative leader – what’s missing for some reason (at least recently) is the call to action to pay attention to him. While I won’t pass judgement on the professional ability of his communications department (because I’m sure they’re capable people), I agree with the journalist in principle. The man has been doing his part (though I do wish he was releasing more policy and spending more time listening to Canadians and engaging their questions), but it seems that his actions are not translating into press; therefore not translating into voter behavior nor poll results. Thus, we have an exhausted Liberal leader whose actions are going unnoticed. This is a major problem in itself, regardless of the fact that their inadequacy may determine whether or not there is indeed a fall election (or a successful one). Added to this are some more serious concerns: if this party can’t get their communications streamlined during the passive summer months, what could we expect during an election or if Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister?
The communications departments likely do not have it easy up on Parliament Hill, what with the rat race and hierarchies and bureaucracy, etc. That said, there ought to be a more cohesive effort, because in general it appears that the media are waiting for something to write about. And left with little press material coming from the Opposition, they are resorting to making it up themselves, which is where the “Michael Ignatieff is nowhere to be seen” story line comes from. In my opinion, the Opposition Leader’s Office and Liberal Party of Canada communications teams ought to have entered the summer with a plan and anticipated and even scheduled roll outs of material. Just as they book Ignatieff’s flights, so too should the communications teams have worked with advisors to ensure each week began and ended with a compelling story line highlighting the action the party had been taking despite the holiday season. Alas, here we are with a well-travelled politician with little respect being paid to the thousands of kilometers he’s traveled or the thousands of hands he’s shaken. Quite shocking really, that such substantial action can be so entirely disguised.
Further to this critical tack, I would like to add an addendum to my recent post discussing both Ignatieff’s and Obama’s struggles with regards appropriately addressing their respective ongoing debates (the Liberal brand and US health care reform):
It is important that the Liberals and Michael Ignatieff himself start to pay more attention to public opinion and respect (in other words, not dismiss) the fact that a viable proportion of Canadians do not believe they know him or that the party has definitive policies on major issues. It’s neither here nor there whether or not this sentiment is true. If these opinions are indeed true, then we are dealing with a leader facing an identity crisis and a party facing an ambiguous and therefore tumultuous stance leading into a fall session where an election may be called. If these allegations are unfounded, then we are dealing with a communications crisis whereby the leader and party have been unable to effectively communicate their identity, values and stance to voters. Either way, these situations must be rectified immediately.
It is when a popular belief is reinforced publicly through polling that it gains traction in the media. When nothing is done by the political parties in question, true apathy and disgust begin to take effect. With their new leader and a refreshed focus on supposed ‘real’ Canadian issues, the Liberal Party of Canada has temporarily washed away this opinion, suggesting that things are different and that they have a new leader capable of listening to his citizens and representing their wishes. This must be reflected in day-to-day operations, however because trust is a scarce commodity in politics and can quickly decay. People are all too familiar with disassociating politicians’ words from their actions, as has been the pervasive precedent throughout Canadian politics (see my post on that here).