Now that the dust has settled on the ‘outrage’ over the Ford government’s launch of Ontario News Now (ONN), it’s time for some objective analysis.
As a new government digital communication tool, ONN irritated activists who claimed this was a partisan vehicle for promoting the government's own objectives.
Let us start with the facts. Premier Ford did not invent the internet, nor did his late brother. Those who follow the subject will appreciate that it was non-other than Al Gore. More to the point, why has the development of ONN generated such widespread scrutiny?
From the ONN’s first moments, Premier Ford and his political team came under fire for developing a vehicle designed solely to share the governments perspective. It is a corporate communications tool that uses social channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to promote the interests of the government and subsequently the Ontario PC Party. Is it news? Of course not. So why are so many people upset?
Pundits and antagonists were enraged that the Ford government were so keen to communicate their agenda. The CBC suggested that “the Progressive Conservative government's production of a TV-news-style video (Ontario News Now) is eroding democracy”. Frankly, anyone who thinks what Premier Ford is doing is either new or unique is just uninformed or ignorant to the facts.
Partisan Messaging is Exactly What Governments Do.
While the specific vehicle (Ontario News Now) may be new, the objectives are really no different than what any other government has done or continues to do. Let’s not let our short political memories forget that other governments in Ontario have done similar things with exactly the same intent.
Columnist Christie Blatchford reminded us that during the 2007 Ontario election we saw former CityTV and CBC news personality (turned senior Liberal insider), Ben Chin host a series of YouTube ‘news features’. Embracing a full newsroom format, Chin’s visibility as a newscaster had an impressive impact. The content unfailingly promoted the Liberal agenda while attacking the Conservatives.
There is ample evidence of this type of creative content strategy throughout our history to level the playing field on this. All this to say that no one’s hands are clean in this regard, but the question remains is it wrong? This is the new political reality and one that sees political parties using the channels that mean the most to their constituents. Isn’t that what we really want from politicians, engagement?
Digging even deeper, former Toronto Star reporter Richard Brennan also highlighted on Twitter that Bob Rae’s NDP produced a broadsheet newspaper (below) that mimicked the Toronto Star’s look and feel and presented the content as actual ‘news’. Why did Bob Rae’s government create their own vehicle? According to Brennan, “...because they complained the media was unfair to them and needed their own voice”.
Governments Must Demonstrate Communications Discipline
Now, more than ever, the election cycle begins with the new governments very first day in office. Higher rates of public awareness, social media and the media have turned an election cycle from being a few months to a never-ending process. The simple answer is that governments have to must demonstrate unfailingly and unwavering discipline when it comes to public communication.
The reason for this level of management shouldn’t be foisted upon the shoulders of any one individual, however some clear examples come to mind as exemplars of the requirements for strong regulation. Former Harris era cabinet minister Dave Tsubouchi gives us a great example of why political communications are often controlled tightly from the centre (especially with new governments). In the early days of the Harris government, Tsubouchi’s demonstrated a particular lack of skill when working with the media. He quickly gained a reputation for public gaffs that were embarrassing to the government.
Then, as a newly minted minister of community and social services, he was tasked with substantial cost reductions. Perhaps most notably his off-handed comments that those impacted by social service benefit reductions ought to perhaps shop more carefully, for example by purchasing marked-down cans of dented tuna. And thus, ‘Tuna-fish Tsubouchi’remains in the frontal lobe of every political leader’s mind when considering public communications. Success in government really is about consistently and continuously controlling the narrative.
Tax Dollars at Work
Although this digs into the weeds a bit on political operations I will pile on a bit. To some, the premise of using taxpayer dollars for partisan messaging is outrageous and an unfathomable blight on our heritage. Let’s be clear. The development of the internet and social media have created are a wealth of opportunities for politicians to promote their (or their parties) own views and it is not limited to those in power.
Sure, the premise of the government promoting their political agenda doesn’t sit well with the uneducated, but there is a stark reality that the antagonists are missing. Every single time an elected official takes to Twitter, they are in fact using public dollars (they are compensated from the public purse) to promote their own political agenda. This is not limited to the premier or cabinet ministers, it’s true of every parliamentarian irrespective of political stripe. Each time a communication is sent out, it is partisan. Each interview given to the media, every press release, every piece of direct mail you get, every public event… you get the point. It’s all partisan. And the majority of it is taxpayer funded. That is how democracy works, at its most operational core.
There is also concern that Ford is scuttling ‘access’ and democracy by filling up press conferences with staffers is also demonstrative of a lack of understanding of how politics works. This is an exceptionally common tactic, in particular for new governments. Some journalists have complained about a lack of access, and again, this is a communications strategy to ensure politicians remain on message and to minimize early term PR disasters.
Ultimately, the new Ford government have shown significant discipline in public communication, something we have come to expect at all levels of government. The current president of the United States isn’t the subject of ongoing and constant scrutiny because of his public policy agenda, it is because of his never-ending stream of communication failures (and a series of moral, ethical and legal entanglements). The tightly controlled messaging of any new government doesn’t diminish democracy if anything it should encourage more effective governing.
What can we really learn from this?
The reality is that the Ford government has done little more than develop and deploy a content strategy. This is a strategy I deployed while working in Hamilton for the local school board in 2006. While at the earliest days of social media, the city only had two traditional print outlets, a talk radio channel and a TV station that had just transitioned into a ‘superstation’ (mostly movies). When I arrived the coverage of the Board was both minimal and unfriendly. I needed to reframe the Board’s activities by re-focusing our public messaging and revitalizing the website and all collateral material to create consistency and alignment. And, it worked.
When brands (including politicians) can’t get the attention they want or need, they often have to create it. Given the overall contraction of the news media across North America, there isn’t the same depth or breadth of coverage. Many organizations have turned to ‘content strategies’ to generate the interest and coverage they want, blending with executive visibility and other marketing techniques to deliver what can no longer be achieved with traditional PR.
Three solid takeaways:
· Control your message
· If you can’t get your own coverage, create your own
· There is no such thing as ‘too much’ communication with your stakeholders
There are many who have argued what Ford is doing is contrary to our democracy, but from a PR and Communications standpoint, adding in some political context, it's actually smart quite smart.