Friday, December 21, 2012

Liberal Messaging: a Rethink is Needed

Political parties conduct polling to find out what issues favour them and what do not, develop their talking points accordingly, focus group these talking points and then repeat these tried and tested talking points every chance they get. Whether, such talking points make much sense does not matter a lick. What matters is soccer moms and Nascar dads or what have you like them.

However, such an approach has two main shortcomings, one minor, one major. The minor shortcoming is this. Just because a talking point tests well does not mean that people will never see behind the facade. Some talking points are like fruit. They spoil. Others are like Twinkies and stay fresh forever. It is hard to guess what kind of expiration date a particular talking point will have coming out of the gate. It could go rotten rather quickly. Moreover, the growing prominence of social media is surly going to mean that such talking points have shorter expiration dates in the future. All that being said, all a political party needs to do overcome this problem is to remain vigilant, restock the shelves when needed and throw the rotten talking points in the garbage.

The second shortcoming is not so easily overcome. Specifically, such an approach presupposes that these talking points will reach the public unfiltered and that is just not realistic. Trying to use the media as a vehicle for getting your message out is like trying to pass a message to someone across a large room by having a series of people whisper in the ear of the person next to them. What message is eventually received is seldom the same as the message given. Some people will hear about such talking points though an unsympathetic columnist or pundit, others will discover it buried in a lengthily article and so on and so on. None of these scenarios has been focused grouped for. People in focus groups are exposed to the talking point and only the talking point.

Liberals in particular would be fatally ill advised to ignore the latter problem. Being the third party they will be given less opportunity by the media to speak directly to Canadians and there is now an overwhelming body of evidence that 1) the bulk pundits are conservative and 2) the vast majority of articles about the Liberals are negative. The former goes a long way in explaining why the Conservatives have garnered so many more endorsements than other major political parties. In 2006 22 newspapers endorsed the Conservatives and 1 paper endorsed the Liberals 1 endorsed the Green Party and 1 the Bloc. In 2008 20 papers endorsed the Conservatives 3 the Liberals 1 the Bloc and 1 the NDP. In 2011 28 papers endorsed the Conservatives 2 the NDP, 1 the Bloc. As for the later, the last 4 McGill media election studies are a great place to start. I do not care how well a particular talking point focused grouped if it is buried in a negative piece or hammered by a pundit it is probably not going to be worth much.

That said, since being losing government in 2006 the Liberals have never acknowledged that this second problem even exists. As result, whenever a Liberal MP is invited on show such as Power and Politics along with MPs from other parties the MP does just what his NDP and Conservative counterparts do, viz., trot out a series of paper thin talking points in the hope that some sound bite is picked up and replayed for a larger audience. Needless to say, such a strategy is the anti-thesis of the old adage that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. The parties act as if the people who are not watching are far more important than the people that do watch. After all, no one with half a brain or any manners is impressed by someone repeating the same point ad nauseum and ignoring everything else that is said.

Of course, the Liberals carried such a strategy to absurd lengths during last year's English language debate. After having watched Ignatieff give a new stump speech at every campaign stop, the Liberals picked the debate, of all times, to have Ignatieff endlessly repeat the same talking points. In doing so, Ignatieff endeared himself to no one who actually watched the debate and 3.8 million Canadians watched the debate. The problems with the Liberal debate strategy did not stop there. Having Ignatieff endlessly repeat common Liberal talking points all but eliminated the chances of Ignatieff delivering a knockout blow. It is easy to defend what you know is coming. When attacking, the element of surprise is important.

Anyway, in order to combat such a short coming the Liberal party is going to have to assume the role of a liberal pundit class that simply does not exist in this country and that means the Liberal party will actually have develop some academically respectable arguments. Board based talking points will not do the trick. They are easy fodder for any well informed person and really lets be honest; the only ones listening to the Liberals these days is pundits and political junkies. The party needs to challenge the legions of conservative columnists least various Conservative positions become received wisdom. Factual errors need to be pointed out, non sequiturs need to be mocked and detailed arguments provided. The party needs to be vicious. Ignatieff talked about wanting to the be the party that bases its decisions on sound reasoning and science. A good way of establishing such a reputation is take a conservative pundit out to the wood shed on occasion. It also makes for good TV and good print. When a conservative columnist retires the Liberals should share Trudeau's lament: "I'm sorry I won't have you to kick around any more." Special attention needs to be given to the following papers: The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Winnipeg Free Press, Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette.

Of course for such a strategy to be effective the Liberals actually need take stand on issues. A lot of the success Conservatives have enjoyed stems from the fact that however, stupid their policies, they have been only ones willing to put forward consistent set of policies (e.g., senate reform). When pundits talk about policy more often than not it is Conservative policies they are dealing with. Outside of the policies announced in Chretien's last year in power and Dion's disastrously ill defined Green Shift, the Liberals have not given the media much to talk about. Indeed, since 2006 the Liberals have almost abandoned the field altogether; they do not put forward polices; they do not put forward arguments; they do not refute arguments. They might tut tut and promise to "compromise", but this only hurts them. The former makes them appear to be the effeminate wimps the Conservatives claim them to be and the later makes it appear that the various Conservative polices have some validity when in actuality they have none. At best, the Liberals will sometimes take a stand in defense of the status quo. The gun registry is a case in point. When it existed they were for it; now it is proved too much trouble to defend. However, do not expect them to say much of anything when they do take a stand. They might note that the experts support them or mumble some vagary about public opinion, but they will not repeat the expert's arguments least someone take offense to what the experts are saying and want to shoot the messenger.

1 comment:

Bluegreenblogger said...

I think you are missing something big here. It is true that delivering your message via the media allows the interlocutor to re-shape your message. So the solution is to by-pass the interlocutor. Conventional media is still significant, especially during an election when all of a sudden canadians turn to them for information. But there are more important ways to get a more nuanced and sophisticated message delivered directly to the eyes and ears of intended recipients. The Conservatives have mastered narrow-casting. They don't much care abouyt mainstream media, they micro-target to email lists, and through ethnic and specialty newsletters etc. They tell gun nuts what they are going to do for them in a newsletter, not in a press conference. that way the message does not turn off normal people who would never support it. It is only heard by those receptive to it. Liberalist is the tool that will allow the Liberal Party to simply end run the media. Once it is better stocked with information on what members and supporters are interested in, then they can be spoken to directly, without the filtering and butchering that can happen in the wider media world.