Politics·Opinion

Conservative campaign diary: A day in the life

A day in the life of the prime minister's director of communications can be bloody difficult, but how does it compare to life on the campaign trail? Former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall looks back on a typical campaign day, circa 2011.

As Andrew MacDougall recalls, life on the campaign trail is not for the faint of heart

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he boards the campaign bus during a campaign stop in Kingston, Ont., in April 2011. Harper's former director of communications Andrew MacDougall recalls what it was like to work on the 2011 campaign. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As I recapped last winter, a day in the life of the prime minister's director of communications can be bloody difficult.

But how does it compare to life on the campaign trail? I only had the pleasure of serving on one leader's tour — 2011's majority-winning campaign — but this is what I remember it feeling like.

6 a.m. — Wake up. Figure out what city you're in. Lament crap sleep because party (rightly) crammed you in with a colleague to save on cost.

6:00:01 a.m. — Freak out momentarily because you think you've missed luggage call or motorcade. Curse wagon master for drilling tour protocols so robustly into your brain.

6:01 a.m. — Quick scan of the news on out-dated party BlackBerry that crashes even more than brand-spanking new government BlackBerry did.

6:10 a.m. — Get into the shower ahead of roommate to ensure adequate supply of crap shampoo and cheap soap. 

6:30 a.m. — Plot the day's Terry Milewski mitigation strategy. Place over/under bets on the length of the preamble to his question, and a bet on whether the leader will include "I reject the premise of your question" in his answer. 

6:40 a.m. – 7:10 a.m. — Give full attention to previous day's coverage. Lament crapness of it. Fire off emails to reporters. Receive angry emails back informing me the party war room has already fired off salvo of (apparently unappreciated) emails to said journos.

7:10 a.m. – 7:30 a.m. — Stumble out to look for breakfast. Luckily, as you're touring swing suburban ridings, there is always a Tim Hortons (or four) within walking distance. Scarf down a breakfast sandwich, or Timatin, if you're in la belle province.

7:30 a.m. – 8:45 a.m. — Briefing call with the war room. Review media coverage. Review the opposition's coverage. Prep for morning message event. Take battery out and reboot BlackBerry.

9 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. — Shoot the breeze with reporters on the bus to the venue. Understand now why you don't typically see them on Parliament Hill until later in the morning. Hand out press releases/backgrounders and attempt to deduce the direction of today's media travel (hint: not in your direction).

Hope for good plane food

9:30 a.m. — Wait for the Van Dusen o'clock call that doesn't come because you didn't give Julie Van Dusen your campaign number.

9:35 a.m. — Take call from Julie Van Dusen who, through trickery or black magic, has now obtained your campaign phone number.

9:40 a.m. – 9:45 a.m. — Survey the media cage at message event. Test its strength. Identify possible journo escape routes and lock them down. 

9:45 a.m. – 10 a.m. — Final briefing for the leader ahead of his announcement. Regretfully inform him that none of the questions are likely to be about the announcement he's making. Duck. 

10 a.m. – 10:20 a.m. — Run the announcement. Moderate Q&A session. Collect on/pay out Milewski bets. 

10:20 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. — Hover around reporters as they prepare their first cut on stories. Monitor TV hits. Prepare for inevitable complaints about broadband speed on the bus. Reboot BlackBerry. 

Whether you call it a breakfast sandwich or a 'Timatin,' Tim Hortons is undeniably a staple in the Canadian election campaign trail. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

12 p.m. — Board flight for next destination. Hope against hope airline food is good so as to avert press revolt. Set up mini-hockey net at end of aisle for the game of fruit bowling during take-off. Survey plane to ensure transport minister not on board, as this is surely a contravention of Transport Canada rules.

4 p.m. — Land in new town. Prep for arrival shot. Scan landscape for unwanted signs telling the leader to "foxtrot" off. Admire sign-holders' tenacity while feeling sorry for them for drawing the short straw in the opposition war room duty roster. 

4:30 p.m. – 5 p.m. — Execute "quick pic" photo op with press pool. If this is in Quebec, this will invariably involve poutine, maple syrup or a casse-croûte of local repute. If anywhere else in the country, this will involve a Tim Hortons, hockey rink, or ethnic food appropriate to the riding. Triple bonus points if the tour team can combine all three in one picture.

5:30 p.m. — Run local interviews. See leader visibly relax as he realises local reporters want to talk about local issues and not inside Ottawa trivia like how many questions national reporters should get.

Lament, take issue

6 p.m. — Arrive at rally site. Survey journo cage and cutaway position cage (cages, if we're feeling saucy), and survey potential escape routes for cagey reporters. 

6:10 p.m. — Cringe while the wonderful and hardworking tech team sound checks Collective Soul's Better Now — a.k.a. the campaign's hype music — for the 8,434th time, in the process earning Collective Soul the only money its earned since 1993. Reflect on how thankful I am that this election is not about taste in music. 

6:15 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. — Further indulge masochistic trait by debating the F-35 program with Steven Chase of the Globe and Mail. Emerge bloody, but unbroken.

6:45 p.m. — Stuff soggy Subway sandwich into gullet. 

7 p.m. – 8 p.m. — Watch the leader rally the troops. Watch supporters' faces light up and get reminded how rare it is to work directly for the leader of a country. Keep eagle eye on supporters behind him to make sure none of them go wobbly. 

8:30 p.m. — Check into hotel and sprint to room to claim the "better" bed before roomie shows up. Head to hotel business centre to print out releases (hey — it was 2011) for the next day's Gainsburger. Read them for the first time to ensure I know what the hell I'm going to be talking about the next day. Hopefully this does not involve using a calculator. 

9 p.m. – 10 p.m. — Participate in nightly tour call. Discuss various journalist caging tactics and quick pic options. If food pic selected, plot how we will achieve desired picture while not having food anywhere near the leader's mouth. 

10 p.m. — Watch nightly news. Lament fact that virtually none of what we worked so hard to produce to fit into these 2½-minute slots actually makes it into these slots. Take issue with CBC The National's At Issue panel. Realize BlackBerry charger is on the plane.

11 p.m. — Fall asleep, but only after laying out the next day's clothes and prepacking the rest. Repeat 41 more times (ah, remember the days of short campaigns?).


Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.

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