Attack vs. Charm? Comparing Harper and Brown’s Media Strategies
When confronted with a bad story, political strategists are often faced with an important choice: do you go on the attack and attempt to discredit the story, or the sources, or the journalist? Or do you use a charm offensive, engage with the journalist, offer your own evidence and story and spin, and (hopefully) massage your way out of the headlines? Doug Saunders, who’s offered the best Canadian reporting on the British election campaign by far, recently provided an interesting analysis on the Labour Party’s long time media strategy.
Saunders’ story paints a picture of a Labour Party retaining power by, among other things, executing a successful long term strategy of media charm and engagement. Rather than dismiss or attack the slant of certain media outlets like the Sun or Daily Mail, beginning with Tony Blair in the 1990s, successive Labour Governments have sought the support of these popular middle class publications and tabloids as a means of attracting and holding onto the that same “swing” middle class vote. That strategy has unraveled somewhat with Brown, who seems to have lost the support of the newspapers and tabloids; yet Brown still, in Saunders words “plays the game”– using lines and policy proposals (like focusing on crime) to garner favor and support among those same media outlets. Will this Labour strategy succeed again? That remains to be seen. But the point is that the core of the strategy is charm: engage the newspapers and attract their support. With this strategy, Labour has constructed an during Parliamentary majority.
Well, now that we are speaking about Prime Ministers trying to construct parliamentary majorities, we can talk about things a little more close to home. It is no secret that since their minority government election in 2006, Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative Party have worked tirelessly at laying the foundation for an electoral majority in Canada. Yet, that achievement has so far eluded the Conservative Government.
There are many reasons for this, but one rarely examined is media strategy. While the British Labour has constructed successive majorities using a media charm offensive, the Conservatives have been notorious for something entirely different: a fierce strategy of attack.
The Conservative attack strategy was on full display this past week. Indeed, while the Jaffer/Guergis scandal monster seems to grow new heads and tentacles by the day, the Conservatives are now on the offensive, trying to turn the page to a different (but oddly familiar) story: supposed liberal bias in Canadian media, in particular at the CBC. While pundits, journalists, and opinion columnists ask what did Minister Prentice know, and when did he know it?, the Conservatives have savagely gone after EKOS Pollster Frank Graves and the CBC for their supposed anti-Tory bias. Kory Teneycke, the former communications director for Stephen Harper, was dispatched to the CBC itself where he labeled Graves a “Liberal” who was pretending to be neutral. Patrick Muttart, Harper’s Chief of Staff, was enlisted to write a strong letter to the CBC complaining about Graves. And Doug Finlay, the PM’s campaign director, followed suit by launching an anti-CBC fundraising campaign. And now a Conservative MP is calling for a “probe” into the matter.
The strategy is likely twofold: in the short term, create a story to take some media attention away from the Jaffer/Guergis affair; and, secondly, in the long term, scare the CBC (and other media outlets) with these strong arm tactics into running more favorable stories.
These are two decidedly different media strategists emerging on two sides of the Atlantic. While Labour charms, the Canadian Conservatives attack. The complexity and fickleness of public opinion makes it very difficult to say which strategy is more effective. But what we can say, is while Labour has enjoyed three successive majorities, the Conservatives still lag far behind the kind of public support needed for that kind of electoral success in Canada. Results, they say, speak for themselves.