Advertising, PR and the Stephen Harper Brand

Advertising, Political Communication, PR Add comments

Many people have written about the PR lessons learned from the manner in which the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has handled the Senate scandal. Clearly, many mistakes were made. It occurred to me, though, that the events of the past three months have also created an opportunity to better understand advertising, branding, and public relations: three concepts that are often misunderstood or even used interchangeably. They’re vastly different and often, as in this case, interwoven in complex ways.

The Conservative Party and the Harper government have shown themselves to be persistent and lavish spenders on political advertising.

Some campaigns came in the form of Government of Canada ads touting the Economic Action Plan and the sound economic leadership of Prime Minister Harper.

Other ads came in the form of traditional Conservative attack ads, this time targeting the newest Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. Here again, the ads focused on the seriousness and leadership of Stephen Harper, as compared to Trudeau.

The ads were paid, entirely controllable by the Harper teams inside and outside the government, and designed to strengthen the brand of the Prime Minister, while (in the case of the attack ads) diminishing the brand of Justin Trudeau. At least, this was the intent.

Which brings us to branding. The most interesting thing about the ad campaigns is that neither appear to have achieved their branding goals. Instead of building confidence in the Economic Action Plan and the  government, the ads drew derision as people reflected on the frequency of the campaign and the tax dollars being spent on that frequency.

Instead of building the image of Harper as a competent leader, both campaigns served to erode that image. Many questioned if the investment of tax dollars in a propaganda campaign was sound and even more wondered about the morals of a Prime Minister who poked fun at a rival leader’s moustache and strip tease, even though both were components of fundraising efforts for important causes.

In both instances, the carefully constructed Harper brand was undone by ad campaigns that backfired. Meanwhile, the rebuttal campaign by the Liberals was calm and positive, helping to build Trudeau’s brand. The recent polls point to both effects.

Of course, in this already charged environment came the Senate scandal and revelations of misdeeds by individuals appointed by Stephen Harper. His chief of staff and two hand-picked Senators are now the subject of enquiries and investigations, which calls into question the judgment of the Prime Minister in selecting these individuals and in creating the culture of transparency he campaigned on.

Public Relations
The Harper brand was not only undermined by the two ad campaigns and the actions of Harper’s inner circle; the brand was undermined by the negative and quite uncontrollable reactions and the comments of journalists and ordinary Canadians that have circulated in the news media and social media ever since. In short, the brand has suffered from a high-profile public relations disaster.

The efforts to mitigate the PR threat fell far short and may have made matters worse. Those implicated have been evasive, unavailable unwilling to come clean and do so quickly. Meanwhile, the conversation among voters and pundits has continued to grow louder and generally less favourable to the Harper brand. Indeed, the general discourse around Harper and the Senate scandal has undermined both ad campaigns, as the gap between the projected brand (strong leader) and the perceived brand widens.

Harper helped himself during his first day back in the House of Commons with a relatively frank and contrite performance in the House of Commons. By day two in the House, he was back on the same offensive tack that simply has not worked.

The unraveling of the PR disaster will continue, however, as the results of enquiries and investigations see the light. The brand will suffer more and the ad campaigns will achieve ever more meagre return on investment.

The lesson here is that advertising can help shape a brand when the messages allign well with the prevailing mood of the target audience. When the messages delivered by others and shared between individuals contradicts the ad, however, the effects are rather unpredictable. Indeed, in these times, continued advertising can serve to deepen the PR disaster and further harm the brand. This has likely always been true but the growing volume of discourse on social media channels and media outlet comment pages – as individuals discuss ad campaigns and shape brands – has served to deepen the tendency and heighten the risks for those who don’t pay attention.





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