Friday, October 29, 2010

Thoughts on messaging, from Rob Ford to fighter jets

I've been doing some thinking lately on messaging. How you need to have a simple message for it to resonate. How the complex issues governments at every level have to deal with can’t be distilled into sound bites. How so many of us don’t have time for the details. And what that means for political discourse.

Two recent developments triggered these thoughts for me: the election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto, and the evolving Liberal messaging on the F-35 and fighter jets.

Say what you will about Rob Ford – certainly, many have. Personally, I think he’s a lot smarter than he’s given credit for, although I disagree with him on just about everything. I can, though, admire his message discipline. He had a simple, clear, and compelling message – cut waste, end the gravy train – and he repeated it ad nauseum, never veering. It’s a message that resonates. After all, who favours waste?

Now, if you look past the soundbites to Ford’s platforms, there are serious issues. For example, the amount of spending he has in his sites is a fraction of the city budget. Big financial holes remain in his budget. The deeper, systemic issues facing the city go largely unaddressed.

We do need to address those deeper issues, but by and large the average voter doesn’t have the time or attention span for those debates. So a simple, compelling message, even if it’s hollow, still rings true.

Take the F-35 fighter jet purchase at the federal level. The government has shown no interest in having an honest debate on the issue. What is the military role we expect fighters to fill for the next 50 years, what are the threats, why is this the best jet? These questions go unanswered. Instead we get support the military rhetoric, and distortions and/or outright lies about the process and decisions taken by the previous government.

The Conservatives have opted to distill it to a simple message: this is the best jet, we support the troops, anything else will cost jobs. The first is unproven, the second debatable and the third untrue, but it’s a simple, clear message.

The Liberals initially tried for a more nuanced message: instead of an untendered F-35 purchase we should have an open, public competitive tender process to determine the best jet to meet our needs and ensure guarantees of work for Canadian business, and a debate over just what those needs should be. I think that’s the right policy, but it’s a 10 minute conversation that people just don’t have time for.

Now, instead, the Liberals have opted for a simple, clear message: we will cancel the F-35 purchase. Now that’s a simple, clear, understandable message. They’re setting it up as a black and white choice that everyone can understand, and that they believe will resonate: fighter jets and prisons or schools and health care.

Of course, it’s not really that simple. There’s actually no F-35 purchase to cancel, because no purchase contract has signed. And a Liberal government would still purchase fighters, and possibly even the F-35. They’d just do it through a competitive tender process. And the feds don't build schools anyways.

But again, by and large people don’t have time to have that wider discussion, particularly if the government has no intent in engaging in it. So it seems the Liberals have decided, rather than cede the field to the government, it’s better to meet their simple but flawed message with our simple but flawed message.

There are hardly unique examples. Our political discourse is increasingly dominated by simplistic arguments and messaging that aren’t afraid of ignoring the facts to send a message. Look at the Green Shift. The right policy, but it was sold poorly – you needed a 10-minute conversation to understand why. The arguments against it – it’s a permanent tax on everything – fell apart under scrutiny, but in the absence of time for that scrutiny a simple, compelling argument wins.

What we’re seeing is a dumbing-down of our political discourse by all involved. Rather than treat us like adults by having rational, reasoned, well-argued debates of issues on the merits, we get focus-grouped sound bites.

Frankly, I’m not sure I blame them too much. They’re only trying to get their message heard, and appeal to us on our own terms. You want to do the right thing, but you need to get elected before you can do it.

The responsibility lies with the voter, the citizen, to get engaged, to look beyond the sound bites and simple messaging by researching the issues and the positions. We’ll only get better if we demand it. But as long as we reward the simplistic, that’s what we get.

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tono-bungay said...

Maybe ballots should include a skill-testing question in order to discard the votes of the clueless. A simple question, like "Rob Ford" with a little box next to it.

CK said...

except, there's a problem with the Liberals doing that, already. Most of the media is on side with Harper, not Ignatieff or any other opposition party for that matter. As a result, Harper can send his sound bites, and odds are, he won't really be questioned on it, at least, not the hard ones.

Not so for the Liberals, I've already been noticing this on Talk radio. Especially with a host like Tea-Party Tommy Schnurmacher, here in Montreal. Like the rest of them, he lets Conservatives off easy and is much harder on the Liberals. He asks "is such and such true?" Adn the Liberal would try to elaborate further, and Tommy would just jump all over him or her and start twisting the words around.

Just saying there is a double standard in Canadian politics these days. Harper can get away with mugging an old lady and he would be forgiven. If a Liberal so much as speaks out of turn, they're massacred in the right winged media. A good example is the Conservatives have been very secretive and have their own scandals, and they're defended and their secrecy is defended. Yet, no one seems to be willing to give ADSCAM the proper burial, long overdue.

Oemissions said...

blood sports

WesternGrit said...

Great post Jeff.

Jeff said...

(accidentally deleted)

CanadianSense posted"

Rob Ford's message was supported by his opponents including the Toronto Star in providing so much negative publicity.
For most of the campaign the other candidates did not inform voters of what they would do vs why they should not support Rob Ford.

That does not work.

Rob Ford has a record of helping people and calling for less waste. The smears of his weight, bigotry backfired. Regular folk live outside the reach of the Toronto Star.

The opposition leader does not have track record, trust and therefore his message won't resonate.

(Partisan opinion supported by Polls)

Most regular folk don't accept the SPIN from all camps. They have to sift through the SPIN from each party.

The leadership numbers for each leader is critical for trust.

Jeff, I disagree with your assertion, the opposition wanted to have a frank or fair discussion about a purchase two years away. This is just another stunt.

This is a repeat of the Chretien-Donolo stunt with calling the purchase cadillacs. Ignatieff has chosen Ferrari today.

This is about playing small politics and trying to win the support of the herbivores who want to build bridges, roads and hospitals.

WesternGrit said...

Yeah... we don't need no stinkin' "bridges, roads, and hospitals"! I'd rather have a 35 Billion dollar pile of scrap (in 15-17 years) than permanent structures that actually help the population.

Technically the only airforce we need is transport aircraft to move our peace keepers and "peace-makers" around the world. If anyone ever tried to "invade" Canada US fighters from Alaska and Northern States would intercept them long before we could decide what to do. After that, ICBMs would rule the day - not ancient propeller-driven Russian and Chinese bombers.

The fanboys always want the toys. The police want armoured cars. Navy wants stealth ships now too... We need to address what we really need. We need coastal patrol aircraft. We need support and logistical aircraft. Airlift.

As an example of stupidity, I'll give you the M1 Abrahams MBT (main battle tank) and Hummvee. The US went to iraq with these toys - the most expensive tank in the world, and a glorified "jeep" with little protection for the troops inside. The M1 quickly was shelved. It breaks down in desert dust (that's pretty useless considering where most modern wars will be fought over oil), had problems with air con units, stiffling troops inside, and burned so much fuel that it was a logistical nightmare (you pretty much have to have an army of fuel trucks following it). The much lighter, more agile, Russian/Soviet T-72/80/90s used in most Asian armies can dance circles around the Abrams, and don't break down in jungle/desert/water-logged conditions. They have reacitve armor, and use FAR less fuel.

The US used the Humvee as a troop transport. These had to be retrofitted to protect the troops. The British and Germans use the Mercedes "G-wagons" which are superior for protecting the troops inside, better on fuel, and smaller/more nimble. This makes them a much better choice. Also, not being GM-made makes them more durable.

Canadian armed forces "experts" wanted Humvees and M1s too. They claimed they would "allow us to integrate into the US forces". Hogwash. The Indian Air Force has fitted Russion Sukhoi 30s and Mig 29s with systems to make them compatible with AWACS (advanced US avionics/targeting/acquisition hardware). Compatibility with a foreign army's systems should not be an issue (it can always be addressed later). Cost/benefit and timing should be factors.

CanadianSense said...


You may want to take this issue up with Michael Ignatieff about the fake bogus peacekeeping reputation for 40 years. His speech in Ireland is available.
He acknowledged and praised the Regan-Thatcher period that saw the dismantling of Berlin Wall and failure of communism.(U of T speech)

Compare the contests in Calgary and Toronto. Both candidates spent time listening to the voters in their platform. The call to action resulted in voters showing up to mark a ballot. Obama did the same thing in the US two years ago.

The key difference is Ford has a track record in opposing the gravy train. He may NOT succeed as he need to build a coalition of votes on council to end the waste.

Obama was sent to build his coalition and with his majority in the Senate and Congress was unable to pass a significant number of key policies according to some of his former allies.

The Conservatives are in a minority have listened to the experts that the 7 country JSF program is the best option going forward.
The Liberal Senator has also shredded the Sea king stunt.

I am impressed you suggest we buy Russian technology to help defend our air space. The Russian military complex would benefit.

The countries that have become freer as a result of the collapse of the Soviet empire many not share your enthusiasm.