Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

For Trained Ears Only

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Gaia (Wednesday February 14, 2007 at 11:50 am)

There was a time, before the creation of nationwide media, when party leaders needed help. The difficulty of reaching people nationwide meant that local champions would carry the message in their regions, and local candidates in their ridings. The advent of mass, nationwide media has made the party leader directly accessible. By radio, television, daily newspapers, and internet, the leader can bring her message, at one stroke, to millions of homes.

This change affects the messengers — local campaigns are less significant when the everpresent central campaign reaches more voters more often than even the most committed campaigners. The change also affects the message — repeated exposure offers a chance to hammer home key points. While it might be tempting to use the many days of campaigning to dish up an endless series of promises, variety is more likely to confuse than convince; and with every message available nationwide, announcements are harder to tailor to individual regions or ridings. All of which helps to explain the growing significance of party leadership over the past century.

But centralization of this kind is a risky proposition. When responsibility is consolidated in a single man, there is no fallback or redundancy. His failure will be the party’s, and there is little or nothing the party can do to protect itself from the consequences. Consider the impact of Stockwell Day’s leadership on his party’s fortunes in the 2000 election and thereafter.

The crucial point to take from this for the moment, is that leaders must now stand alone, for better or for worse. Jason Cherniak has recently stood up for Liberal Leader Stephan Dion’s decision to make the environment his message. In doing so, though, he’s revealed a fundamental problem with Dion’s approach.

It’s not the preposterous assertion that Dion’s victory in the Liberal leadership was owed to his focus on the environment, rather than the arcane mechanics of leadership contests. It’s that he feels the need to explain what Dion means:

Dion’s platform [during the leadership contest] was to give the environment equal prominence with social justice and economic growth. That is where the idea of a “third pillar” comes from. This means that when you talk about spending on social programs and growing the economy, you also talk about environmental sustainability. This is not because the environment is taking prominence - it is because the environment is being treated equally.

Of course, to our untrained ears this sounds like Dion talks only about the environment. That is not really true. The truth is that he talks always about the environment. No social justice or economic initiative will ever pass into a Dion Liberal platform without consideration for its environmental impact. Again, Dion was elected because of his equal treatment of the environmental pillar, not in spite of it.

Super! But, if true, then why isn’t Dion saying it? Isn’t speaking of the environment a confusing way to speak of other things? It’s what you might call bad messaging.

Besides which, as effective as Cherniak’s gracious interpretation may be, it’s up to Dion to make the message. If the leader’s message can only be grasped with “trained ears”, it’s not good enough. Relying on a swarm of priestlike interpreters to get the “real” message across makes as much sense as sending out flyers written in code.

But that’s the problem with any group of initiates. The fact that they understand lets them explain the great secret to others; but it’s not worth many people’s time to seek out their help. When the leader speaks without mediation, there’s no opportunity for the priests to jump in. Or to put it another way. . .spin doctors are really helpful when you mess up. If you need them on your main message, you’re in real trouble.

But that’s the other problem with a circle of initiates: they tend to keep the faith, no matter what.

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