26
Aug
Doug_Ball Crop

Campaign Messaging: An Ode to the Staged Photo-Op

Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield fumbles during the 1974 election. A seemingly harmless way to pass the time during a campaign refuelling stop led to this iconic photo. Campaigns are far less willing to go unscripted today and for good reason. http://www.photosensitive.com/picturechange/gallery.php?id=19 (source is Canadian Press)

Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield fumbles during the 1974 election. A seemingly harmless way to pass the time during a campaign refuelling stop led to this iconic photo. Campaigns are far less willing to go unscripted today and for good reason.
 (source is Canadian Press)

It should be expected that during a political campaign, particularly one as long as the current 78-day Canadian campaign, there will be gaffes. These gaffes are often exacerbated by today’s rapid speed news cycle and use of social media. Information is disseminated immediately, often without context. Gaffes can quickly take a campaign off its central messaging so that an important announcement on a substantial issue is quickly forgotten in favour of the human spectacle that is easier fodder for headlines and water cooler conversations.

There are other times where factors beyond a campaign’s control can also derail messaging and sometimes an entire campaign. Revelations from Senator Mike Duffy’s trial (which, thankfully for the Conservatives is now being postponed until after the election) or turmoil in the stock market are just two examples, from this week alone, of issues that the media and public will focus on over campaign-related news.

Controlling the messaging has become central to Canadian federal elections. The main political parties no longer release their campaign platforms all at once. The strategy has transitioned to making campaign appearances (which may or may not contain policy announcements) and delivering a “message of the day.” This is an attempt to afford campaigns a higher level of control by trying to guide voters towards what to pay attention to that day.

The daily campaign message is decided long before the campaign even starts. How it is then executed depends on a number of moving parts including location (no sense in having an announcement on seniors take place in a playground) and logistics (can your campaign buses make it down the narrow rural road for the announcement on agriculture?). Visuals in messaging are also extremely important. So much of what Canadians see about campaigns they get from television or their computer screen. Therefore, campaigns plan events based on that view. A rally may look well attended on television but what the viewer at home may not know is it was deliberately held in a smaller room and then crammed full with supporters.

Research and communications also play a crucial role in a campaign event. Before an event, researchers need to (but don’t always) make sure that one of their candidates hadn’t previously said something to contradict the leader’s message. Researchers also need to make sure they have double and triple checked information before the leader speaks and campaign materials are sent out. In the 2000 campaign, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day stumbled at a photo op in Niagara Falls. He claimed Canadian jobs were flowing south “just like the Niagara River” when in fact the river flows north. Not an earth-shattering gaffe, but it took the campaign off its message that day once the other parties and media pounced on the error.

Campaigns live in fear that something will go wrong and by the very nature of campaigning it is almost always inevitable that something will. But where you can have control, you take it. If a leader looks scripted at an event it is because they are and for good reason. Months of hard work on messaging and an election victory are at stake.