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Lessons from the Campaign Trail: What the 2019 Canadian federal election can teach us about public relations

September 30, 2019

 

 

All eyes may be on the United States as the impeachment debate boils to a head, leaving many wondering who will be sitting in the Oval Office a year from now, Canada is in the midst of a potential leadership shakeup of it’s own.

 

The official Canadian election campaign trail has only been going for a few weeks, a look at the candidates Twitter pages would have you believe it has been on for the better part of a year.

 

Nearly every word spoken by sitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been flipped and spun into a Conservative Party attack-ad, while the same can be said for the Liberal Party and the words of the Leader of the opposition, and Trudeau’s chief opponent in this year’s election, Andrew Scheer.

 

Meanwhile, the Party leaders has been making public appearances and speeches for weeks, detailing their platforms on everything from the environment, to schools, to healthcare to taxes and the economy, and missing no chances to criticize their opponents along the way.

 

Serving in arguably the most public role around, it’s no surprise that the candidates have faced an endless amount of scrutiny from their opponents, the media and most importantly, the public.

 

In a campaign period that has already seen major scandals, old comments brought back into the spotlight, bad photoshop and unfortunate costume choices from the past, it’s hard to tell what will come over the next four weeks.

 

But what we can know is that there are lessons to be learned from the campaign so far which can bear relevance to any person with a public facing profile (even if they’re not trying to be Prime Minister).

 

Here are some of the top public relations teachable moments from the campaign so far:

 

The Past is Always Present:

 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have both been forced to respond to things they’ve said or done in the past during the campaign.

 

Scheer was made to defend himself over his stance on equal marriage rights after a video of a controversial speech he had made in parliament 15 years ago resurfaced, while a series of 20-year old photos showing Trudeau in racially insensitive body and face paint were released to the media forcing him to make a series of public apologies to Canada’s racialized communities.

 

Multiple Conservative and Liberal candidates have also come under fire for their own past comments and tweets which have been called racist and homophobic.

 

 

So what can we learn from this?

Twitter and its social media peers have come to serve as an archive of everything you have ever said, and what this campaign has showed us above all else is that in this new era, you can’t escape from your past.

 

What can you do to stop this from happening to you?

 

Be mindful of your online presence. It goes without saying that some things are best kept to yourself and it’s never a good idea to paint your skin a different colour for a costume, but more importantly, remember that everything you say or do can find it’s way into the public sphere, and once it’s out there, it’s nearly impossible to take it back.

 

There is Still Power in Telling the Truth:

 

It may seem like truth is a relative term in politics, and the candidates may disagree with each other’s version of it, but the appearance of honesty and trustworthiness is important to basically every public-facing role you could find yourself in. If you’re a financial advisor or portfolio manager, clients will want to know they can trust you with their money. If you’re a teacher, parents will want to know they can trust you to teach and take care of their kids. If you’re a politician, people want to know they can trust you to serve them to the best of your abilities.

 

The truth has been a contentious topic so far this campaign. Leaders from all the parties have accused each other of lying or withholding information, and it’s fair to say that trend likely won’t end with the campaign.

 

While the rules of truth telling seem to apply to politicians in a different way, we can learn one simple lesson on telling the truth from this campaign:

 

You should do it.

 

Be open and honest in everything that you do. It may sound obvious, but people don’t like feeling like they’re being lied to, and it’s fair to assume that neither do you. If someone asks you a question, give them the honest answer, even if it’s not what you think they want to hear. It’s always better to do it this way, then for them to find out you’ve been lying to them all along.

 

Rebuilding lost trust is a lot harder than building it for the first time.

 

Be Yourself:

 

Another seemingly obvious one, but it bears discussion.

 

Self-image is crucial in politics, as it is everywhere else. We can see the personas our candidates want to project, whether it’s the handsome, feminist Prime Minister who just wants the best for Canadians, or the hardworking middle-class Conservative leader who wants a strong economy and an opportunity for everyone, and people can tell whether or not those images are truthful. Say what you want about President Donald Trump, he has always been unquestionably himself.

 

What’s the lesson here?

 

It goes part and parcel with telling the truth. People will trust you more if they think the person they’re seeing is actually you. And if they trust you more, they are more likely to hire you, or pay for what you’re selling them.

 

Social Media has Changed the Game:

 

We’ve skirted around the issue so far, but the fact of the matter is that social media has changed the way politicians campaign, it’s changed how they do their job, and most importantly, it’s changed how voters and consumers alike interact and engage with candidates and businesses.

 

Anyone with a Twitter account can log in and tell the candidates exactly what they think about their latest platform update (or scandal) and if there is one thing that can be said about this year’s campaign, it’s that Canadians have certainly not missed that opportunity.

 

Leaders of all parties have been faced with criticism, often times bordering on abuse, as much or more than they’ve received praise. The same can be said for most public figures. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges for public figures using social media: there’s simply nowhere to hide.

 

Obviously Justin Trudeau can’t respond to every tweet thrown his way, but social media also comes with an expectation of engagement on the part of our public figures.

 

For businesses this means that social media has become everything from a help line, to tech support to (more often than not) the complaints folder.

 

The flip side, as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, is that social media has presented companies and individuals unprecedented access to new and existing clients and customers. Companies have taken to releasing their official news releases, yes, in the very same place your Aunt Judy shares her pot roast recipe.

 

What’s the lesson here?

 

Social media has ushered us into a new era of accountability. It serves as a public record of everything you and your company have ever done, and whether or not you’re actively using it, there’s a strong chance your customers are. There’s also a chance that even if you’re not using it, your customers are using it to talk about you.

 

There may have been a time when companies could get away without social media accounts, but that time is quickly coming to an end.

 

If there’s one thing we can learn from this campaign when it comes to social media, is that it can be a powerful tool for engaging with the public, but with great power comes great responsibility.

 

To borrow from another over-used phrase, the rule if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything is actually pretty good advice if you are in a public role. As we’ve seen throughout this election, everything you say on social media is part of the public record, and you never know how it can come back to haunt you later on.

 

While we won’t pretend to be able to predict what the final results of this election will be on October 21, what we do know for sure is there is plenty to learn from how our candidates have behaved in the public light so far.

 

While one of them will be chosen as the next leader of this country, if the past few months are any example, you might not be well served following their lead when it comes to public relations.

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