Election Offers a “Teachable Moment” on Message Strategy

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The craziness of the ongoing Canadian election is providing us all with an important “teachable moment.”

And what it’s teaching us is that political campaigns need a strong and consistent message.

In short, a well-constructed, succinct message,  one that resonates with the public, is a key ingredient to winning any electoral contest.

Consider the success of Barack Obama’s message of “Hope and Change”, or Donald Trump’s “Drain the Swamp,” or Rob Ford’s “Stop the Gravy Train.”

The formula is simple: come up with something to say, have a leader who can say it, and say over and over again.

But although it’s simple in theory, as we’re learning in this ongoing Canadian election, once a campaign gets underway a message strategy can sometimes unravel in a hurry.

As the old saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Indeed, the Liberal Party’s messaging plan during this campaign careened into a ditch and burst into flames after it made contact with the brown face/blackface scandal currently rocking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

To put it simply, this bombshell of a scandal put the Liberals “off message”.

Indeed, almost went overnight the Liberal slogan went from “Choose Forward” to “Justin Trudeau: He’s no longer a racist!”

And to show why this matters, keep in mind, going into this election the Liberals basically had two key messages: a) Andrew Scheer is either a bigot or he tolerates bigots and b) Vote for Trudeau because he looks so adorably cute in his delightfully clever photo ops.

The blackface debacle, however, has derailed the “Scheer is a bigot angle”, since, after all, bringing that up would only remind voters of Trudeau’s own less than stellar past on race.

And since the Liberals were busy doing damage control, it meant Trudeau’s photo ops had to be put on hold for a few days.

Only recently did he show up to a news conference paddling a canoe – but please note Trudeau, still stinging from those blackface images, refrained from dressing up as a coureur de bois.

Now let’s go from talking about Trudeau’s blackface to Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s red face.

Even though May has probably the easiest most direct message to communicate – “Vote for Me to Save the Planet” – her party still somehow managed to screw it up.

I’m talking about the infamous story of how the Green Party photoshopped a reusable metal straw and reusable cup into the hand May for a photograph on the party’s website.

When the media caught on to this ruse, a Green Party spokesperson said she had no idea how the metal straw ended up in the picture, but told the media the image had been photoshopped replace a reusable cup, with a reusable cup featuring the Green Party logo.

But it turns out that wasn’t true; crack reporters, who wouldn’t let this crucially important story go, discovered the original photo actually showed May was holding (horror of horrors) a single-use, disposable cup.

For Greens this is a massive embarrassment, the equivalent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez getting caught wearing a “MAGA” hat.

Anyway, my point is thanks to sloppy, amateurish messaging from her party, May went from attacking others for their lack of action on the environment to defending herself from charges of hypocrisy.

I’m sure someone at the Green Party was charged with photoshopping the embarrassed look off May’s face.

And this brings us to the Conservative Party and its leader, Andrew Scheer, who, unlike May or Trudeau, has more or less managed to stay on message.

But the problem for the Conservatives isn’t the message, it’s the messenger, i.e. Scheer is about as inspiring and passionate as a damp sponge.

Whenever he appears in a TV ad or gives a speech or talks to the media, he’s completely devoid of anything resembling energy, he seems robotic and stilted and his talking points are delivered with a boring monotone.

Essentially, Scheer sounds rehearsed.

Seems to me a better communicator would be making mincemeat out of Trudeau right now.

And this illustrates a key point about messaging in politics, namely a party’s message will have more or less credibility and more or less power depending on who is giving it.  As Marshall Mcluhan famously put it, “the medium is the message.”

At any rate, as you can see communication pitfalls or shortcomings can trip up any campaign’s messaging strategy; sometimes it’s a massive and unexpected scandal, other times it can be something as seemingly trivial as a paper cup.

To meet such challenges a political campaign’s communication team has to be adaptable and able to modify a message strategy on the fly.

As jazz musician Barry Harris, once put it, “The minute you make a mistake, that’s improvisation.”

Photo Credit: Jeff Burney, Loonie Politics

More from Gerry Nicholls.     @GerryNic

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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