Issues Management

Ignore At Your Own Risk: Campaign Issues Management

During election campaigns, it is nearly impossible to guess how long an issue will have legs for. The wrong issue in the public eye can redefine an entire campaign, causing something minor to erupt into a full-blown crisis in no time. In this long campaign, gaining control over these issues quickly could be the key to preventing a gaffe from shifting from a day-long problem into a defining campaign issue.

The third week of the federal campaign was rife with these types of problems.  Duffy trial aside, what made headlines was not the daily messages from the leaders, but a series of problems gaining media attention.

For the Liberals, it was a candidate issue.  Ill-advised, controversial tweets from a (now former) Calgary candidate’s teenage years created a problem for the Liberal Party.  Content of the tweets aside, the attention it drew to the Liberals was negative and aligned with the Conservative’s “just not ready” narrative of Justin Trudeau.

Initial attempts at an apology from the candidate were inadequate and lacked sincerity.  When pressed on the issue, Trudeau defended the candidate and noted her apology. However, this was deemed insufficient by both the media and the public. As a result, the only feasible option was for the candidate to resign.

Crises like this go through three phases – the breaking phase, the maintenance phase and resolution. There is one rule of thumb in resolving a crisis: an organization needs to honestly examine the mishap and commit to changes in policy or process which would prevent this from happening in the future. In the Liberal candidate’s case, the issue was resolved by the next news cycle. The Liberals were able to mitigate the damage to their brand by forcing the candidate to resign.

The swift lifespan of the issue – less than a day total – should mark an end to this issue for the Liberals.  However, there is no guarantee that it won’t happen, not just for the Liberals, but from any party, as the challenge of ensuring that candidates are fully prepared for public scrutiny (including scrubbing their digital and social media footprints) is extremely difficult to fully resolve.

In contrast, a problem outside the control of the party structure has been a headache for the Conservatives this week.  At an event in Toronto this week, a Conservative supporter took issue with the media’s questioning of the Prime Minister on the Duffy affair, hurling insults and expletives on camera. Later, an apology was issued to reporters from a Conservatives spokesperson.  However, the apology did not provide resolution and the video of the exchange has since gone viral, spawning numerous memes and a Twitter account (@AngryHarperite).

An angry old guy becoming the face and voice of the campaign this week is far less easy to manage for the Conservatives. It is well known that attendance at campaign events is by invitation only and guests vetted by the party. This is in contrast to the NDP and Liberals who are holding public events throughout the campaign. This issue shows that even in a tightly controlled environment, there is still room for unpredictability.

To resolve the issue, there are few options for the Conservatives to prevent an occurrence like this in the future. They have already limited event attendance. Closing all events to the public is not a feasible option in an election campaign.

In subsequent events, the Conservative campaign reminded supporters to respect the role of the media. However, the Party’s control over behavior of others is limited at best. The Duffy trial is far from over and the questions from the media will continue. While it is impossible to predict the future, the potential for a similar outburst is unpredictable and given the many days left on the campaign trail, there are plenty of opportunities for trouble.  The question is whether this issue will have legs or whether it will fade into the background after the next issue emerges on the election trail.

In election campaigns, no issue, whether internal or external, is too small.  Today’s gaffe could become a defining theme of the campaign, or it could effectively be mitigated to minimal impact. The challenge in a long campaign is that each day presents a new opportunity for something to go wrong. For each of the parties in this election, managing these issues is a delicate balance of communication, policy and image.  Gaining the upper hand on these minor issues could be key to ensuring that defeat is not snatched from the jaws of victory on October 19.