Toronto Star

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.”

 ?? SEAN KILPATRICK THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’Toole’s team has hired consultant­s Topham Guerin to boost the Conservati­ve party’s social media game ahead of the next federal election.
SEAN KILPATRICK THE CANADIAN PRESS Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’Toole’s team has hired consultant­s Topham Guerin to boost the Conservati­ve party’s social media game ahead of the next federal election.

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