Close election race could force Conservatives to reconsider media relations

With the federal parties neck and neck a few short months before Canadians cast their ballots, political strategists consider whether the Conservatives will need to rethink their approach to media relations to eke out the votes they need to retain power.

Media avoidance may not work in race with no clear frontrunner

A wall of Conservative staffers keep journalists at bay as Prime Minister Stephen Harper finishes a speech at a campaign rally in Ajax Ont., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. A close election race in 2015 could prompt a change in the Conservatives' media relations strategy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The image of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's underlings extending a long rope through a 4th of July parade to keep reporters away had the U.S. press corps and conservative pundits squawking.

But have they heard the one about the velvet rope on the tundra?

Last August, the small band of Canadian journalists travelling with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his annual Arctic tour had the surreal experience of standing behind bank-style stanchions in Baffin Island's remote York Sound.

Nine years after the Conservatives took power, not much has changed in Harper's general approach to managing the media — be the party in minority or majority status.

On Monday in Calgary, print reporters were barred — as usual — from watching a photo opportunity unfold, this time between Harper and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Questions are always strictly prohibited by Harper's team at such events.

But will the thinking shift in an election that is perceived to be much closer, a pre-campaign that is stretching out for months?

Hostility not a winning strategy

Clinton's campaign, which appeared to have adopted a similar strategy of limited media access, said this week it would ease up. Unfavourable comparisons have been made between her and more accessible rivals, including Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Jeb Bush.

Kory Teneycke, the Conservative campaign spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment.

Yaroslav Baran, a former Conservative campaign communications aide, said the modus operandi all depends on the particular alchemy of a campaign.

An underdog might seek out media attention as much as possible to gain more visibility. Frontrunners will traditionally do everything possible to limit the potential for mistakes, to protect their lead.

Baran says the trick is avoiding the extremes.

"You never want to totally expose your candidate, and the opposite extreme, you don't want to be so closed as to be hostile. That's not usually a winning strategy," said Baran, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.

"Journalists are professionals, yeah, but you're not doing yourself any favours if the people writing about you subconsciously think that you hate them."

'Better than news'

Harper is hardly alone in giving a great deal of thought to communications, in what has become an era of the "permanent campaign" and the aggressive 24/7 news environment.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to reporters at UN headquarters in New York September 20, 2011, rarely takes questions from national journalists. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

But where "spin" might have been the operative term for the persuasive tactics favoured by the governments of British prime minister Tony Blair, U.S. president Bill Clinton, or Canada's Jean Chrétien, Harper has favoured limiting the information and access of national reporters rather than engaging them.

So too did Australia's John Howard — a prime minister who is said to have influenced Harper.

Bruce Anderson, a former political adviser and longtime pollster, said that some might conclude that three electoral victories later, the Conservative strategy has worked.

Some elements of the Conservative base of support might respond to the often-repeated argument that the party needs to fight against the media's biased "filter" of their message. Last week, Teneycke told Global News that "we're better than news, we're truthful."

But Anderson said that another way to look at the issue is to consider the opportunity cost of not being more open and attracting new support.

He said a prime example is Harper's meeting Monday with Notley, where Anderson said the PM should have taken a few questions.

Anybody's election

"They can't only be campaigning on a how-do-we-reduce-the-risk-of-things-going-badly proposition right now,"' said Anderson, chairman of Abacus Data.

"They need to grow their support, and they need to find a way to get people to pay attention to them with the sense not only that they're really the only viable alternative, but they're an attractive alternative."

With the fixed election date and the longer lead-up to the campaign, media management calculations might also change. Anderson predicts the public will be even more engaged in the election.

"If that's the context, then the most reticent players in terms of being available for public commentary are putting themselves arguably at the greatest risk...," said Anderson.

"Everybody's going to have to approach this campaign as something different, both because there's a longer time frame to it, and because there's a kind of completely unusual dynamic where the public is saying, 'we could look at any one of these parties as forming the government."' 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.