'Taking matters into his own hands': Doug Ford's media strategy includes his own reporter

The Ontario PCs are using political staff to file online TV 'reports' about Doug Ford as he campaigns in the provincial election.

PC leader going straight to the public in his bid to unseat Kathleen Wynne in the upcoming June election

Videos featuring Doug Ford being interviewed by a staffer have also been used as online advertisements. (Facebook)

When Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford announced he was backing away from plans to allow new development in Ontario's Greenbelt, Lyndsey Vanstone captured the moment with her Ford Nation Live television crew.

It is easy for her to get access to Ford: after all, she is his executive assistant and former press secretary.

As Ford campaigns around the province ahead of the June 7 election, Vanstone is there to cover his every move in a series of partisan, TV-news-style videos that are racking up hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook.

Vanstone, executive assistant to Doug Ford, appears in the videos, which offer the campaign's view of events. (Facebook)

Patrick Gladney, a social media marketing expert at FleishmanHillard HighRoad, thinks it is a shrewd strategy.

"For a politician who has had a somewhat adversarial relationship with the media in the past and may not feel he's had a fair and balanced view, he's taking matters into his own hands and speaking to the electorate directly," he said.

Ontario PC ads are showing up in the ProPublica political ad database. (ProPublica)

In about a dozen videos produced for the Ontario PC Party Facebook page over the past few weeks, Vanstone, microphone in hand, enthusiastically shares the campaign's messages.

She praises the party's promise to cut electricity rates as an "honest and responsible hydro plan."

She refers to Ford as the "soon-to-be premier" who is promising "brighter days ahead."

Ford's communications director, Melissa Lantsman, defends the strategy, saying the party will use "every opportunity to connect with voters, including online videos, to highlight the plan Doug Ford has for the people of Ontario."

Lantsman says the strategy is nothing new, pointing to the 2007 campaign, when the Ontario Liberals had former TV anchor Ben Chin do a series of YouTube videos under the banner Liberal TV.

Stephen Harper also had an in-house media team, 24/Seven, which produced flattering features about the then-prime minister and his Conservative government.

Both sets of videos had views in the thousands, but more than a decade later, the Ford Nation Live videos are generating considerable engagement online.

The most popular video, about Ford's promise to fire the head of Hydro One, has almost a million views and more than 3,000 shares since it was first produced.

The party is also promoting views of that video through a series of targeted advertisements on Facebook. CBC News has been able to track that campaign in a Facebook Political Ad database being crowdsourced and compiled by ProPublica, CBC and other news organizations.

(CBC)

The database shows that the PCs appear to be targeting at least two demographics with that ad: men and women over the age of 65, and married men aged 35-64.

"I think this is something that all political campaigns should be doing," said Gladney. "If you're not doing this, you're not taking advantage of all the tools you have as a politician to speak to the public."

Social media allows "brands" to act as publishers in their own right, said Gladney, pointing out that this puts the onus on consumers — or in this case, voters — to determine the credibility of online content.

But the Ford Nation videos, he said, are likely being targeted primarily to decided voters.

"It is his base … the electorate most likely to agree with what he has to say, and share what he has to say with their personal networks."