I originally wasn’t going to write about public relations again today, but an idea came to me yesterday morning as I was thinking about a few conversations I had Wednesday. I want to push yesterday's conclusion a little farther – that the best way to counter messaging that’s hostile to your organization on social media isn’t to engage and overcome each message, but to ignore them and implicitly respond through future messages to your supporters.
The example I used yesterday was Uber. It’s been very successful in promoting its message that the company is a free market challenger to a taxi cartel. It’s been less successful in suppressing a competing message that the labour conditions of its drivers are horribly exploitive.
|One thing I respect about Harper's communications
machine is that they figured out how to turn the
impossibility that he could ever be cool into a
strength for his public image.
Today, I want to talk about Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in Canada, which has become a gold standard in comprehensive audience research, as well as steel-fisted media relations and message control.
What we can learn: what’s worked brilliantly for a long time can quickly turn into a massive liability.
For the last decade or so, Harper’s Conservative party has built a winning strategy. They research the voting public of the country in such detail that they can build a precise and highly detailed demographic portrait of Canada.
They’ve identified what demographics will definitely vote for them, what demographics are likely to vote for them, and what demographics are unreachable. They’ve identified the precise issues mostly likely to move people’s minds depending on their personalities, communities, neighbourhoods, and economic status.
They tailor their ads and other communications accordingly. Young female apartment-dwelling professionals: no chance, so no focus in communications or policy. Middle aged married suburban families; crotchety seniors: leaning to them with messages and policies focussing on their concerns.
It's hypersegmentation, slicing and dicing a population and targeting communications to appeal to their self-interests. The government targets this base in messages and policy, and effectively ignores the rest of the population’s concerns.
The Prime Minister’s office also tightly controls media access and messaging from all government agencies. A key communications tool of the government is the Message Event Proposal, an outline for all government public events, no matter what their purpose and content, that mandates the inclusion of particular messages about government policy, no matter what the event is actually about.*
* When I was training in public relations, I was a little disturbed that some of my classmates thought Message Event Proposals were a great idea because they were so effective at propagating and controlling messages. They considered them without any thought of the ethical limits of public message control. We had this discussion in our Ethics of PR class.
|That a Prime Minister would chat
casually with reporters has become
a mind-blowing idea, but it used
to be an everyday event.
Journalists’ access to government offices, employees, and ministers is extremely restricted as well. We’ve long known about the muzzle on state-employed scientists, that they’re unable to publish or publicize any findings that don’t agree with policy messaging decided in Cabinet.
One problem is that casual media literacy is growing in Western culture. People know when they're hearing a prepared message, and will evaluate it on its own. Little by little, natural human skepticism leads people to seek out critical voices on their own. Even people in prime Conservative support demographics will leak away from the base. Humanity is a race of contrarians.
All support bases fray over time. So communicating to the base and its borderline alone will eventually erode support, as recent polls suggest is happening. Social media’s structures tend to accelerate this erosion because an attempt to engage a critic’s thread only promotes the initial criticism.
Conservative messaging has been so tightly controlled for so long that innovation can only come from the top, the insiders' cabal where it’s difficult to understand why thinking differently would even be sensible. They’ve been targeting the base exclusively for so long that they’re losing the ability to appeal to skeptics and undecided thinkers.
Communication strategies of tight message control to reach hyper-targeted supporter demographics was a brilliant innovation ten years ago. But the strategy itself enforces the inability to adapt because contrarianism and difference is necessary for creative thinking.
Professional communicators must never lose their contrarian character if they want to avoid becoming a living fossil. I don't yet have enough experience working in the field to know how prevalent such an attitude is, but I’m experienced enough to know how important it is.