A cynical take on some recent NDP communications tactics

- August 31st, 2012

I’ve long maintained that, from a political operations and communications standpoint, the federal Conservatives and New Democrats are, in many ways, mirrors of each other. The parties stand, of course, for very different things but, to give one example, they both approach political marketing and messaging with similar discipline, objectives, and operational smarts matched only by their Conservative counterparts.

Latest case in point:

All registered federal political parties are required to file their annual financial statements within six months of the end of their fiscal year. The fiscal year for all parties coincides with the calendar year so that means everyone must have their documents in to Elections Canada by June 30 each year, six months after Dec. 31.

The NDP, though, was alone among major parties and missed the deadline this year. On July, I asked Chantal Vallerand, the NDP’s Acting National Director why this deadline was missed and she e-mailed this response to me:

“We asked for an extension due to the additional workload that resulted from the leadership race. We plan on filing our report by August 30, 2012.”

(Elections Canada, incidentally, granted the NDP’s request for an extension)

So I and probably many reporters in Ottawa put a reminder in my calendar to check back with the party and with Elections Canada on August 30 to get those statements.

Why the interest? Reporters were expecting to find details on how much the NDP had to pay back to unions after Elections Canada ruled (as my colleague Kristy Kirkup reported) that fees the NDP collected from several unions over the years could not be counted as “advertising” but must be counted as “donations.” As it is illegal for unions or corporations to donate money to any political party or candidate, this notice from Elections Canada amounted to a finding that the NDP was in violation of Canadian election financing laws.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was asked several times over the spring and early summer about this issue but refused to provide any details.

Still, if you’re part of the NDP’s Strategic Communications team (or StratComm as I’ll call them hereon out for short), you know the figures will have to come out and so you want to manage their release to ensure that your leader, Mulcair, is far away from the story and that you minimize any negative fallout.

Now, I didn’t talk to NDP StratComm but here’s my bet how they ended up managing the release of this info: On Sunday August 26 — the Sunday before the August 30 deadline reporters all have marked in their calendars — the Toronto Star reported the big news we’d all been waiting for:  that the NDP had paid back more than $340,000 in “advertising fees” it collected from several unions.

The Star‘s Joanna Smith sourced this information to “internal party documents” obtained by The Star but otherwise provided no details about how her paper, alone among news organizations, obtained these documents. Smith also interviewed two New Democrats about this payback: Nathan Rotman, who, by then, had become the permanent National Director of the party and Brad Lavigne, Rotman’s predecessor. Smith said Elections Canada had no comment on the matter although Smith did quote form correspondence sent by Elections Canada to the NDP. Notably, Mulcair did not provide a comment or a statement on this issue. On this last point, the NDP took the same approach as the Conservatives who never have Harper comment on a “party matter” like campaign financing unless he’s asked a direct question in the House of Commons or by a reporter.

Now, I want to be very clear here: I am not suggesting Smith or The Star improperly reported on anything. My organization, Sun Media, or any of the others I’ve worked for, including Postmedia and The Globe and Mail, would almost certainly have done precisely the same thing if it chanced upon these “internal party documents.” This was a big scoop and good get by the Star and, it should be noted, that Smith was among those reporters dogging Mulcair earlier this year with the tough questions he’s yet to answer about these illegal donations.

Smith is silent on the issue of who provided these “internal party documents” to the Star but, based on my experience of how things tend to work around Parliament Hill, I’d bet at least 50 cents an NDP source provided them to the Star. I’m not challenging the reporter, Smith, to affirm or deny my hunch but NDP StratComm should certainly consider itself challenged if my assertion here is wrong.

So, given the assumption that the NDP was the source for internal NDP documents, let’s work through the problem and solution that NDP StratComm has:

The NDP knows it has to file these documents with Elections Canada by August 30 and that there has been intense interest among Press Gallery reporters about what is in them. August 30 is a Thursday ahead of a long weekend. Elections Canada typically takes a day or two to vet the documents and code them before publishing these financial statements on its Web site. So, sticking to that timetable means the financial statements with the bombshell news about the union donations will be discovered by reporters in a best-case scenario today or worst-caes on Tuesday Sept. 4. Why is Tuesday the worst case? Because that’s the same day that federal NDP caucus opens up its annual summer caucus meetings in St. John’s, NL.

So if you’re NDP StratComm, controlling the timing for the release of this information has some important advantages, namely, you want this mess all cleared up before caucus week begins next week. If it was to come as New Democrats were gathering for their caucus, it would dominate any reporting from St. John’s and crowd out any “positive messaging” NDP StratComm wants coming out of that caucus. (For a preview of that positive messaging, please see Postmedia’s Tobi Cohen’s “wide-ranging” interview with Mulcair and other senior NDP caucus leaders published today. )

Solution: Get this news out in a way that minimizes the publicity and do it in a way that allows StratComm types to better manage the news cycle on Labour Day weekend leading up to and through the three-day caucus meeting.  How to do that: Leak the information a week ahead of that caucus meeting so that it will have pretty much exhausted itself by the time caucus rolls around. So to whom should the leak be made? In this case, it was to The Star and it proved to be a good choice from a StratComm perspective. (Again, this is not to suggest The Star was being used as a dupe here and, by giving some information to the Star you’re not exactly hiding it under a rock. It is, after all, the largest circulation newspaper in the country. But NDP StratComm may have been betting — with some reasonable expectations — that us press gallery types are such a competitive bunch that  we hate it so much when we get scooped by a rival that we’ll probably ignore our rival’s scoop as if it never existed. (The rivalry is particularly intense between senior leadership at The Globe and Mail and at The Star who have a long history of ignoring each other’s scoops no matter what!) And even if a paper cannot ignore a rival’s scoop and must credit the scooper with the scoop, the odds are that the scooped paper or news organization will tend to downplay it. I’ll demonstrate this theory in action in a second.

Now remember, Smith’s story was in the print edition of the Sunday paper.  As soon as they saw the story, the Conservatives cranked out their own propaganda in reaction to Smith’s story, demanding that Mulcair reveal details of meetings with union leaders. (The Conservative narrative that it has been pushing all along is that the NDP is “under control”  of “big union bosses”, as spurious and laughable a narrative pushed by the NDP that that the Conservatives are controlled by “Big Oil”). The presence of the Conservative reaction to Smith’s story gave a bit of fresh hook for the Star’s rivals but, still, you couldn’t write that story without talking about the $340,000 the NDP is paying back and you had to source the Star to do that.

So, in many editions of  Postmedia papers on Monday, the news about the union donation was matched with a story reporting the Conservative reaction. According to the Informart database (which, I should note, is an excellent, though, incomplete set of the country’s newspapers missing a lot of French-language papers and many, including the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Atlantic Canada papers), the story made A12 of the Montreal Gazette, A7 of Saskatoon Star-Phoenix; C1 of the Moncton Times Transcript, A3 of the Ottawa Citizen, A8 of the Regina Leader Post, A4 of the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

But the biggest — and likely unforeseen — bonus for the NDP StratComm team were the news organizations that never even covered this at all and still haven’t! A search through Infomart, looking for search terms “NDP”, “union” and/or “donations” found that:

  • Though the NDP convention where much of this money was spent/collected occurred in Vancouver, neither Postmedia paper in Vancouver — the Sun and the Province — published this story. Neither did the Victoria Times Colonist. The NDP we note are, according to the latest polls, the most popular federal and provincial party in the province.
  • According to Infomart, readers of print editions of The Globe and Mail and National Post have yet to read a word about this. Of course, the National Post does not publish on Mondays in the summer so its first chance to tell their readers about this would have been on Tuesday, two days after the Star first broke the story and NDP Stratcomm may have correctly better no paper is gonna go with two-day-old news. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Globe absolutely hates eating the Star’s dust and would only do so in the most extreme circumstances. Even more bizarrely: A search of “NDP” and “Union” produces zero results at both globeandmail.com and nationalpost.com which means both of our national newspapers have yet to tell their readers of this extraordinary $340,000 return of illegal donations by the NDP. (Infomart did not track a Canadian Press file on this, either, and CP copy is heavily used at the Web sites of both those national papers.)
  • The country’s three most watched television newscasts are, in order of viewership, CTV National News; Global National and CBC’s The National. According to the transcripts of these newscasts logged at Informat, there has not been a peep about this story on CTV or Global,  On The National on Monday night, anchor Diane Swain had a 59-word brief about it. Can’t blame the networks. Having reported for both CTV National News and Global National, you don’t have a story if you don’t have some pictures or video to go with it. And this kind of story is Very Visually Challenging.  (Still, there is still no mention of this payback at at ctvnews.ca or globalnews.ca either, which also relies heavily on CP copy. CBC.ca got to the story at 5:47 pm EDT on  Monday Aug 27 and managed to do it in a way that avoided crediting the Star because they had NDP director Rotman ‘fess up on its Power and Politics show on CBC Newsworld. )
  • Though Postmedia’s Cohen does not say when the interview with Mulcair was done, it is the first interview with Mulcair  I’m aware of that has been published since the revelation that $340,000 of party money is going back to unions. The story does not indicate if Mulcair was asked about those donations but, from an NDP StratComm objective, Cohen’s article is exactly the kind of reporting it would like to see ahead of the caucus because there is a chance that other reporters, reading Cohen’s piece, will pick up “frames” for issues outlined by Mulcair, Nathan Cullen, Peter Julian, and Peggy Nash.
  • As for the SunMedia papers (my chain), the news about these illegal donations was reported in a column by Ezra Levant published Tuesday Aug 28, in 32 of our papers around the country. (The column, as it turned out, is critical of the media for paying more attention to actual and alleged Conservative violations of elections financing and less attention to Liberal and NDP violations of election financing laws.) Levant’s column was not on A1 of any of those papers but was published on each paper’s op-ed space, a spot that, next to A1, probably has the highest visibility in a paper. We have not yet seen the official financial statements from the NDP (despite asking for them this week) and we will report again on these illegal donations when we get Elections Canada file.

So the roll out of this “bad news” seems to have gone swimmingly well for NDP StratComm on two levels. First, it distributed the news on its own timing and two, it has discovered that most of the country’s editors and lineup producers largely don’t give a hoot about it!

Categories: Politics/NDP

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6 comments

  1. Jay says:

    This is good reporting. It shows an insiders view of the way politics works, the media works and what the result is.

  2. Gloria says:

    This country isn’t Canada anymore anyway. Canada is a deep, bottomless abyss of corruption. There are no morals or ethics left in this country, what-so-ever. There is a litany of, lies, deceit, corruption, thefts, dirty tactics, dirty politics, dictatorship, and cheating to win. There isn’t a Ministry nor service, that isn’t controlled and corrupt. Including the media, who are just propaganda machines for the corrupt politicians.

    There is no longer any pride in being a Canadian. At one time, we would have been very upset about Quebec leaving Canada. It no longer matters. We can’t blame Quebec wanting to get out of a country like this. Perhaps there are other provinces that would feel more safe, as their own little country’s.

    There are very few politicians in Canada, that are worth the powder to blow them to hell. Politics are no longer about, what is good for the country, the provinces nor the people. Politicians are all about, what they can thieve from the citizens for their own, usually selfish and stupid goals.

    This past Federal election was dirty, contaminated, and a totally corrupt farce of a democratic election, in a supposedly democratic country.

  3. Jim Morrell says:

    Pretty much standard government communications practice – be it tory or liberal. The strategy works all the time. The media’s attention span is merely a nanosecond longer than the average Joe.

  4. Those who are successful MUST do what works, and therefore, they converge on doing that, to meet as the government and loyal opposition. What WORKS is based on the social facts that 99% of Canadians always act like political idiots, or brain dead sheep, that are routinely being fleeced, and probably being set up to be slaughtered.

    “Democracy” is already almost dead! More than 99% of all the most important public powers have ALREADY been privatized. The primary one was that the government gave away the power to make money out of nothing, as debts.

    That is now a runaway insanity. Around those private banks, grew up mass media conglomerate corporations. Elections became puppet shows, put on by the mass media, which always end up benefiting the established fascist plutocracy. Inside that real context, the most successful politicians are always the best professional liars and immaculate hypocrites. The political context of the political puppet show is to see who can trick the voters the best. Those who best succeed in fooling enough of the voters, enough of the time, become the government. After they use up their political capital, by doing, or actually causing to happen, mostly the opposite of what they said, or promised would happen, then some new crop of professional liars and hypocrites can step through that breach, and take over, in order to do that all over again.

    Politics as marketing becomes an bottomless pit of cynical manipulation, because that WORKS. All those who attempt to promote any more “truth” based on evidence and logic end up being pathetic losers. In the end, this runaway triumph of FRAUD will destroy civilization. However, there is nothing practical which can be done to prevent that happening anyway. Too bad. So sad!

  5. Chris says:

    The public is asleep and the NDP has so much good will built around it that a mishap like the union donations story has zero play. The right wing is so corrupt that the average person has been trained to expect nothing less from political parties. In fact to not have a minor donor scandal would probably make voters uncomfortable. No body cares about this story of your report in my humble opinon.

  6. Fiona McMurran says:

    I agree with Jim Morrell. This is what communications departments DO, in business and the public sector as well as in political parties. That’s their job. That the NDP is doing it too is a sign that the party is growing up and ready to get into the game…It looks as if the other media outlets had a sense that the public was just not going to bite. Too bad; Ezra must be peeved. (BTW, if you really want an education in StratComm, take a look at the McGuinty government.)

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