Conservatives’ strategists want party to shock
Consulting firm has worked on campaigns in Australia, New Zealand
OTTAWA—You have to shock people. Your message should invoke anger, pride, excitement or fear.
That’s how the social media consulting firm hired by Canada’s federal Conservative party views effective political communications in the digital age.
The Star reported Friday that Erin O’Toole’s team has hired consultants Topham Guerin to boost the Conservative party’s social media game. The company has run digital campaigns for conservative parties in New Zealand, Australia, and for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party.
In a 2019 speech, co-founder Ben Guerin told an Australian audience that effective social media campaigns should be like “water dripping on a stone” — repetition being key in embedding a message in voters’ heads.
“You’ve got to be pushing the same consistent message day in, day out,” Guerin told attendees at a conference organized by the Australian Libertarian Society and the Australian Taxpayers Alliance.
“You’ve got to surprise people, you’ve got to shock people, you’ve got to unlock an arousal emotion in people … The particular emotions that we need to unlock are arousal motions. We’re talking anger, excitement, pride, fear. Your content should be relating to one of these emotions for anyone to give a damn about.”
That’s how you win elections that nobody believes you should win, Guerin added.
“You can’t spend long doing a perfectly created, artisanally perfect graphic. You’re going to slap some Calibri font on a s--t reused meme and then you get on to the next one,” Guerin said.
“Sad but true … That’s how you win share of voice, and when most of that is concentrated in marginal seats, that’s how you win an election that nobody thinks you’re going to win.”
Topham Guerin may have been successful in past political campaigns. But the company has also attracted controversy in its political engagements.
The company was behind the U.K. Conservatives’ controversial 2019 digital campaign, which drew criticism for rebranding the party’s Twitter account as a “fact-checking” service.
Independent research into the U.K. political parties’ digital messaging found that the Tories were “by far the most frequent” purveyors of misleading advertising — with fact-checking organization First Draft labelling 88 per cent of their posts misleading during one four-day period, compared to 6.7 per cent for the Labour party.
“Even if some of these tactics are not novel, the impunity with which they were employed appears new,” concluded researchers at King ’s College London.
Topham Guerin was also awarded a 3-million-pound ($5.1 million) sole-sourced contract by the U.K. government to work on COVID-19-related messaging, The Guardian reported. The firm was accused of pushing out a sexist advertisement for the government’s stayat-home orders, which showed domestic tasks being done by women, while the only man in the advertisement lounged on a couch with his family.
Topham Guerin did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Star.
A senior Conservative source confirmed that the agency was not behind a controversial meme published this month on the Conservative party’s Twitter account, which showed a man on a ventilator labelled “Trudeau summer.” The tweet was deleted, and O’Toole later told reporters it was inappropriate.
It’s not unheard of for federal political parties to look beyond Canadian borders for help. The federal Liberals called in strategists from the U.S. for the 2015 and 2019 campaigns, a move the Conservatives watched in dismay as the Liberals leapfrogged them in digital tactics.
But as one insider told the Star, for the Conservatives to look south was a non-starter.
“The Liberals and the NDP can go to the Democrats, and oh, everyone says that’s just fine,” the insider said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the secrecy afforded to caucus conversations.
“We couldn’t go to the Republican firms — it would be toxic.”
O’Toole did engage the services of one of the more controversial Canadian firms during his own leadership race.
He spent nearly $200,000 with Mobilize Media, the company behind the wildly successful Canada Proud and Ontario Proud groups, whose social media campaigns have been attacked for hyperbolic approaches aimed at thwarting Liberals at the federal and provincial level.
But O’Toole and Mobilize severed ties after the leadership race, in part because of elections law.
Changes to the law to regulate the activities of third-party groups came into effect ahead of the 2019 campaign. Among other things, registered third parties — of which Canada Proud was one — are prohibited from express collusion with political parties during federal elections.
Having a formal link with the party for a campaign while trying to run its social media effort could easily bring accusations of collusion, given the crossover between the targeted audiences for both: right-wing voters.
Bringing on experts in delivering conservative wins is meant as a signal to the party’s brass and base that O’Toole is intent on doing things differently this time, insiders said, even if whatever the firms provide may not be that different than what could be done by local groups.
But at the same time, to consider the move a stroke of strategic genius that will keep O’Toole in as leader if he fails to win the next election would be folly, one long-time campaigner said. “There is no amount of data that will save Erin O’Toole.”