Harper's Communications Strategy and Some Principles of Propaganda

By W.T Stanbury, The Hill Times, 23 November 2009

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a 'control freak,' who prides himself on being a top-flight political strategist, and central to his strategy is tight control over his government's messages. But let the pundits wail, thrash about, and pontificate. They are irrelevant to the PM's strategy.

On Nov. 16, The Hill Times published a feature column on the effectiveness of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "iron message control." The column noted that the PM "has become legend for the iron control he exerts not only over the messages his government sends out over the heads of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, but also the messages his staff and MPs project." Harper has sought "to manage the government information flow to the media as well as the public appearances and statements of his own MPs and Cabinet ministers." Critics have said that "the wall of selective silence and control that shrouds the entire government undermines the free flow of information citizens could normally expect in a western democracy."

With respect, there was not much new here. Since he came to power early in 2006, there have been many articles calling the PM a "control freak," who prides himself on being a top-flight political strategist, and that central to his strategy is tight control over his government's messages. (Generally, see Bruce Campion-Smith, "How to control the spin," The Toronto Star, May 26, 2008.)

Still, I thought it time to do two things to put the Harper government's communications strategy into perspective. The first is to provide a brief, but comprehensive summary of the many elements of that strategy. That has not been done before. The second is to provide a wider perspective on Harper's communications strategy by comparing it to some important principles of propaganda.

  • Centralize communications for the entire government in the PMO (Prime Minister's Office). Threaten Cabinet ministers and others with pain of dismissal if they fail to keep their mouth shut, or when told to open it to speak from the centrally prepared talking points. This only works because Harper also centralized all important government decision-making in the PMO backed up by the PCO (Privy Council Office). This is perhaps the most extreme example of court government in Canada's history.
  • Create a simple message (series of simple messages over time) aimed at keeping support among the base and adding supporters and repeat it endlessly—with only the slightest variations. Link the message to previous campaign promises and try out theme/issues for the prospective campaign which might come at any time as there is a minority government.
  • Manage both images (still and video) along the same lines as words. Steven Chase of The Globe and Mail (Nov. 14, 2009) reported that "Since the spring, the PMO has effectively set up its own picture service, e-mailing photos to Canadian media almost daily in an effort to find a market for publicity shots of Mr. Harper's activities. It's a service that ultimately competes with the work of photojournalists, but one, they argue, that should not be relied upon as a record of events. "Further, Chase documents manipulation of photos and photo ops in much the same fashion as the text messages have long been "managed."
  • Use the vast government communications machine (and to a lesser extent Conservative Party media team) to bypass the filter of the mainstream/major media. The government communications/advertising budget has been used to promote the Conservative Party and its peerless leader. There is no propaganda tool to too low not to be used—think of those super-sized cheques (made for six-second clips on the nightly news) with the CPC logo and/or Tory MP's signature.
  • Keep the PM front and centre on behalf of the entire government. There can never be too many flattering photos of the PM in every conceivable government Web site, ad campaign, etc.
  • "Message Control includes Appearance Control…Personal stylist makes sure PM's polished. " This headline during the last election says it all. Note that taxpayers paid for the PM's stylist, (Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press, Sept. 22, 2008).
  • Demonstrate aggravated contempt for the press gallery, most notably the reps of the biggest dailies and the TV networks. (Former U.S. president George W. Bush also followed this approach.) This plays well with the Conservative Party base—and it tells reporters that they are not going to be the effective opposition as they are wont to do. Part of this tactic is to deny reporters the kind of facilities they want. The debate over such facilities can facilitate long delays—helpful to the government. Let the pundits wail, thrash about and pontificate. They are irrelevant to the PM's strategy. Stay focused, sir. They need the PM far more than he needs them—despite the usual comment that it is a symbiotic relationship.
  • Never let the PM face a "scrum" of journalists; never let him be "ambushed" in moving from his office to the Commons, for example. There is too great a chance of saying something unscripted, hence getting him "off message." Just ignore the criticism from journalists—the base certainly doesn't like them either.
  • Ration interviews with the PM and press conferences carefully. Economists advise that creating artificial scarcity raises the price. In this context it means that reporters will be less hostile and a little grateful for even a limited interview.
  • Invite reporters from small-town outlets for interviews. Feed them the line of the day—near their deadline and watch them convert the press release into a major story with few changes. Have the press secretary call them later and tell them what a great job they are doing. Subtle, right?
  • Let reporters eat "Gaines burgers"—specially prepared versions of the message du jour. If they want more they will have to dig. (What a concept!) Besides, they can ask Ken Rubin to help them with an Access to Information Act request (see Ken Rubin, The Hill Times, Nov. 16, 2009).
  • Frame the opposition leaders negatively with party-sponsored ads. Reinforce with party speakers' jibes in Question Period—all for TV news. They lap up this stuff.
  • Use surrogates of the PM or ministers to spread dirt on "enemies" (but do not keep an "enemies list" as did former U.S. president Richard Nixon). If the "dirt" does not check out—stonewall—just like RN. If absolutely necessary, do a "modified limited hang out"—another move from the RN playbook.
  • Use the social networking media—on a limited basis to target the young. In general, make more use of the new media—like feeding the Tory bloggers who are happy to disseminate the PM's message without questioning it. Ignore the websites listing all the PM's lies and factually questionable statements—and which provide evidence to support their claims.
  • Spend big bucks creating a high-tech "war room" for what amounts to the "permanent campaign." This is the era of minority governments in Canada. Use the new technologies to ensure message control by all 308 Tory candidates.
  • Combine party fundraising appeals with the PM's statements in the news media.
  • Clamp down and ensure delays for what flows out via Access to Information Act (see Stanbury on "How government plays secrecy game in Ottawa", The Hill Times, June 15, 2009).
  • Use the legal system to block the release of news. Sue the Liberals for big damages and create "libel chill" regarding the accusation of attempted bribery of the now late MP Chuck Cadman to get his vote on a non-confidence motion. Then negotiate a settlement under which no details can be released.
  • Let the opposition self-destruct from a distance. Never interfere with a political opponent who is hurting himself in an effective fashion.
  • Encourage Conservative MPs to spend as much as possible on the "ten percenters" mailed at taxpayers' expense to persons outside the MP's constituency. "Le Devoir found that MPs with the minority Conservatives spent $6.3-million on the mailers, while opposition MPs spent $3.8-million," (The Globe and Mail, Nov. 16, 2009).

According to one authority, "Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels," (Richard Alan Nelson, A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, 1996).

Although the term propaganda is not pejorative in its origin, the negative connotations arose during the First World War when both sides engaged in extensive propaganda—much of it crude by later standards—as part of the war effort.

  1. The propagandist must have access to intelligence concerning events and public opinion. This role is played with great energy by the PMO, backed by the PCO, as noted above. While spending by the federal government on public opinion polls has declined somewhat under Harper, it still permits frequent polls, and allows the PM to delay the release of the results—thereby gaining an advantage in designing communications efforts.
  2. Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority. This is perhaps the central task of the 85 staffers in the PMO. But the entire government communications apparatus is enlisted in the same task.
  3. The propaganda consequences of an action must be considered in planning that action. This seems apparent from the messages distributed and amplified by the PMO and other government communications efforts (using many tax dollars).
  4. Propaganda must affect the [opposition party] policy and action. Just ask Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff about those attack ads (said to cost more than $4-million) paid for by the Conservative Party from donations subsidized by a generous tax credit.
  5. To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications media. Harper has made extensive use of the mass media and he has also used the so-called new media including the social networking site on the Web. Recently, he has been emphasizing photos, as noted above. Then there was the crooning at the National Arts Centre—now enshrined on YouTube.
  6. Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false. One of Harper's former advisers, Tom Flannagan, has put it this way: "It (a statement in the news media) does not have to be true. It just has to be plausible," (The Globe and Mail, Sept. 8, 2009). The test for Harper seems to be whether the message "sells" with voters.
  7. Black rather than white propaganda may be employed when the latter is less credible or produces undesirable effects. Harper's black propaganda has consisted of (i) millions of dollars of attack ads defaming the current and previous leader of the opposition; (ii) the used of surrogates to dish dirt on selected targets (just ask former PM Brian Mulroney); (iii) highly questionable (others would use blunter expressions) statements by the PM about quite a variety of issues, notably the validity of asking the Governor General to prorogue Parliament when faced with a defeat in the Commons on a scheduled want of confidence motion.
  8. Propaganda may be facilitated by leaders with prestige. The PM—said to hold the most prestigious post in politics—has been his own chief propagandist. He insists on being the only "star" in his government.
  9. Propaganda must be carefully timed. Two successive minority governments have resulted in a much higher level of uncertainty in the federal political arena. However, it is clear that the PMO has always sought to time the release of its messages (No—the PM's messages) for best effect. That includes "burying" bad news.
  10. Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans. Think of the effort that went into showing a parrot pooping on former Liberal leader Dion (said to be the mistake of an underling)—or the slogan the current Liberal leader Ignatieff is "just visiting." Both got vast coverage in the news media and endless repetition—so from Harper's perspective—they worked (although some pundits decried the crudeness of it all.)
  11. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred. Hatred may be too strong when speaking of the "red meat" messages put out by the Harper government to stroke its base. The announcement on Nov. 27, 2008, that the government would end the subsidies for the five major political parties was certainly widely perceived as an effort to kill key rivals—whom Harper himself had called "enemies."

Some readers may be shocked to learn that the principles cited above are based upon Goebbels' Principles of Propaganda by Leonard W. Doob, published in Public Opinion and Propaganda; A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. I want to emphasize that many other governments have engaged in propaganda as defined above to varying extents, and thus applied some of the principles listed above. The governments include previous Canadian governments and those of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, G.W. Bush, and, of course, Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Obviously, Mr. Harper leads a democratically-elected government. However, the level, intensity, and foci of his communications efforts may be of concern to Canadians. 

W.T Stanbury is professor emeritus, University of B.C. This article was republished in full courtesy of the Hill Times and W.T. Stanbury.

Photo: Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press