Sunday, January 22, 2006

Harper fumbles the ball

From public relations firm Veritas Canada, it's their weekly round-up of PR touchdowns and fumbles. After a good performance the week before, this week Veritas calls a fumble for Stephen Harper's recent performance on the campaign trail.

Both Veritas execs agreed Harper made a mistake by getting off his own message and playing into the Liberals' hands with his musing on the courts, Senate and public service. I agree with most of what they say, and I'm sure Stephen and his advisers do too.

In the interests of full disclosure, they also rightly award a fumble over Buzz Hargrove's foolishness. Was Hargrove a Layton mole? The shadow knows. The shadow knows.

The full report can be viewed here.

Harper Strays From Script
Regular TD&F readers may recall that I awarded a recent Touchdown to Conservative leader Stephen Harper for the tone of his campaign. But this week, something happened that reflects an important lesson in communications. I have seen this with Veritas’ corporate clients, where a new company will effectively communicate its key messages, gain public profile, and then see its competitors set “traps” for it. These traps are easy to fall into; it’s tempting to respond to them, particularly when they are unfair or misleading. But responding to a trap does something else: it takes you off your key message track. It gets you talking about something your opponent wants you to talk about. That’s what happened to Harper this week and resulted in today’s Fumble. As Liberals set the trap of alleging that the Conservatives have a secret social conservative agenda, Harper stepped into it. He commented to the effect that with the Senate and Supreme Court stacked with Liberals, he’d be limited in what he could achieve. Which resulted in this from the Globe and Mail: “Liberal Leader Paul Martin accused the Conservative Leader yesterday of planning to stack the Supreme Court with politicized judges who would allow for a social-conservative agenda drawn from the "extreme right" in the United States.” It fell under the main front page headline: “Harper’s lead takes a hit; With Tory leader straying from script, poll shows support for his party waning.” Globe Ottawa Bureau Chief Brian Laghi even penned an analysis piece headlined: “Has he squandered his shot at majority?” Remember, it’s your choice what your message is. Don’t let someone else define your message, or trap you into letting them define it for you.

Harper Slips Off Message
The dying days of any election campaign are always among the most dangerous from a communications perspective. The party leaders are tired, campaign workers are tired, candidates are tired, and all are now used to living in close contact with the media. Put it all together and it’s an ideal environment for less than ideal things to get said and reported. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper made his first real communications mis-step of the campaign this week, by getting a little too relaxed and being a little too forthcoming with comments about the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the federal bureaucracy being stacked with Liberal appointees and sympathizers. Viewed under any other circumstance, what Harper said would really be neither shocking nor alarming. But the fact that he said it during an election campaign – and especially LATE in a campaign, when reporters who have long since bored of actual policy announcements and platform commitments will pounce on any off-message nugget as if it’s some kind of grand revelation – is the problem. Harper’s comments made irresistible headline fodder, and gave the struggling Liberals one more bit of ammunition for their scare campaign. When he was Premier of Ontario, Bill Davis used to say that “bland works.” When you’re under the kind of media scrutiny that Harper is dealing with right now, bland is your best friend. Stay the course, stay on message, and leave the musings for another day.

Buzz Bombs Martin's Day
Paul Martin hit a pothole of his own this week, freshly dug into the road by his new best friend, Canadian Auto Workers Union President Buzz Hargrove. Hargrove, who earlier in the campaign shocked everyone by endorsing Martin’s Liberals over Jack Layton’s NDP, was back at the PM’s side again this week, cautioning voters in la belle province to “stop Stephen Harper in any way they can.” “Even if it means voting for the separatists?” he was asked by reporters. “Anything to stop Harper,” Hargrove replied. “Even if that means voting for the separatists?” they asked again. “Stop Harper,” Hargrove said. He went on to suggest that Harper actually had a separatist agenda, comments which are an obvious Fumble, and ones from which Martin had to later distance himself and declare – with visible discomfort – that Stephen Harper is, indeed, a federalist. But I want to focus on the aforementioned exchange with reporters, as it illustrates a fundamental communications lesson for all, even if your communications work has nothing to do with politics. If in the course of their question, a reporter suggests something which is either factually incorrect or something with which you otherwise disagree, then say so in the clearest possible terms. Don’t just leave it hanging out there when you answer the question – otherwise, you risk having it reported as fact, since you had the opportunity to challenge the notion but didn’t. That’s what started Hargrove’s problems: he was portrayed, as one of Paul Martin’s most prominent backers, as encouraging people to vote for the Bloc Quebecois. Given Hargrove’s decades of experience in dealing with reporters, I suspect he was trying to be too cute by half – not disagreeing with the notion, but not coming right out and saying it – and it came back to bite him (and his choice for PM).

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CanadianTruth said...

Well, if that's all Harper has done wrong during the campaign ...

... not really much of a fumble if you compare it to the list of Liberal gaffes going around the blogs.


A BCer in Toronto said...

That was actually just from the past week CT, although Harper had a pretty good record before that. The archived reports for past weeks on their web site disect plenty of Liberal gaffes from the campaign too.