A creative brief for the anti-prorogation movement

missingI went to a political rally yesterday: the anti-prorogation rally. I’m very frustrated about the current political climate in Canada, and, perhaps like most Canadians, feel powerless to do anything about it. Sadly, I didn’t feel that much more empowered after the rally, for reasons I’ll get into below. I wondered what more I could do. So now I am writing a blog post about it. I have no illusions about how many people read this blog. In fact, I have server logs with precise statistics.

I think it’s great to see so many people going out to the anti-prorogation rallies across the country. If you take into account the number of people in the anti-prorogation Facebook group, and the number of people attending rallies all over the country, and then – here’s the important thing – take into account how many people you know who would never in a million years bother to do either of those things, no matter how they felt about an issue, you can use that percentage to extrapolate an estimate of the total number of Canadians who are opposed to prorogation. Of course, if you prefer slightly more exact measures, we have polls, which have recently suggested that of the roughly two thirds of Canadians who are aware of the issue, 58% are opposed to prorogation. So that means that about 40% of Canadians think it’s a bad idea. Let’s say there’s about 2.5 million people in the GTA, and for the sake of argument we’ll apply that number as if the demographics of Toronto match those of the poll respondents one to one (unlikely, but this is just a mathematical exercise) and conclude that the 3,000 or so people who showed up in Dundas Square represented another one million or so folks who agree with the cause but for one reason or another couldn’t be arsed.

The Carol Burnett Show of conscience

random samplingNow I’m new to this grass-roots political movement stuff. Yesterday’s rally was, in fact, the first I’d ever attended. I can’t say I knew what to make of what I was in the midst of. The people onstage were obviously committed and concerned. A number of valid issues were raised by a number of speakers, ranging from education to employment to the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan. Messages were delivered in speeches, chants, comedic banter, and song – the latter performed by an aboriginal womens’ group and Toronto’s Raging Grannies. It was a bit like a socially conscious variety show. In the crowd, there was a man dressed up as a sheep, or possibly a polar bear. There were some brave and hardy lads in togas parading behind a sign that said “Spartans Against Tyranny.” Various fringe political parties were represented by pamphleteers, and the Liberals and NDP graced us with their official presence as well.

A few hours after returning home, I decided to refresh my memory on all that had transpired, and so began to look online at news reports in the hopes that someone had recorded the agenda of the Toronto rally, but no one had in any great detail. The general message was that many thousands of Canadians came out to protest prorogation. There were some quotes from participants, politicians and citizens as well. They could pretty much be summed up as “It’s great to see everyone out protesting this issue” (this from the politicians); “This is an abuse of power” and “The Conservatives are avoiding answering tough questions about the Afghan detainee scandal” (these from the citizens). So, in short, nothing was established by these rallies that we wouldn’t have known from reading the EKOS poll results from two weeks ago. If that’s the case, what was the point of the whole thing?

Numbers are our friends

I don’t mean to say that rallies are pointless. If the objective was to raise awareness and get some press coverage, that mission has inarguably been accomplished. If we can increase the awareness of the issue among Canadians from 67% to, let’s see, 88%, then based on our EKOS poll results we could suggest that 51% of Canadians are opposed to prorogation. And that certainly sounds better than 39%. But you know what, that’s not going to happen any time soon. And not knowing anything about the demographic makeup of the 33% who have yet to be informed of the issue, we can’t predict what side they will be on once they do hear about it. We can guess right now that they don’t watch TV news, don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio, don’t pay attention to the elevator news, don’t read news on the internet, and don’t read my blog. Many of them may not be English speakers. Between you and me, I don’t think these folks are going to be much use to us.

As many of you know, for better or worse, I work as a writer in the marketing industry. And while I try not to bring my work home with me, having been at it for some time it does tend to colour my thinking, unbidden. The problem of the anti-prorogation rally started to feel achingly familiar to me – because I have the same problem with some of my clients. They say to me, by way of my account team, “Write an ad/a letter/an email/a website/a piece of junk mail about my product.” And then I say, to no one in particular, because if I’m asking the questions at the end of a brief it’s not likely that anyone in the room has the answer, “What exactly would you like me to say about it? What is your message? Who am I talking to? And what is the desired end result?” [For a concise yet erudite take on the importance of the creative brief and product differentiation, you may wish to visit the newly-minted blog of a Mr. Scott McKay.] I can certainly write in the absence of that information. I could write a pleasant little story, perhaps. Or a review of a movie I’ve seen recently. But the odds of me being able to produce a communication that will convince someone to buy my client’s product will be even slimmer than they are under ideal circumstances. And I’m not saying that to be modest. Mr. McKay can also school you on response rates.

Defining our objectives

So let’s see if we can increase the effectiveness of our grass-roots protest by applying some basic marketing principles to the situation. First we should determine what our objective is. This is a tricky one in this case. We may want a lot of things: lower unemployment rates, troops out of Afghanistan, Harper’s resignation, or merely the resumption of parliament. If we set our sights low enough, we might settle for press coverage, publicity for our cause. Maybe we just want the Prime Minister to know that we’re opposed to this sort of thing.

you can't hideBut our objectives must also be guided by reasonable expectations. In the real world, this is because we don’t want to waste our time pursuing impossible goals. In the marketing world, we take reasonable expectations into account so that we can keep our response rates high, and our clients (and their bosses) happy. It’s obvious, I’m sure, that the first four things I listed are straw men; our rally isn’t going to create jobs. Employment rates go up and down and an economist could write you a book on why (hey, maybe that’s what Prime Minister Harper is doing with his two months off), and even if that book had any clear instructions you could act on, I don’t think “hold a rally” would be in there anywhere. A rally isn’t going to get our troops out of Afghanistan either. We haven’t managed to vote our way out of Afghanistan, though many of us are vehemently opposed to war. But the truth of the matter is that there hasn’t been a popular war, by Canadian standards, since 1945. Governments don’t send troops to war because they think that their constituents want them to. Warring is just something that governments do, they know they don’t need our permission, and they assume that we, as voters, understand that. Afghanistan is a non-starter. Are we even at war? There is a war going on there, and we have troops there, but are we at war? I don’t know. That’s another blog post altogether, ideally written by someone else. In a grand mis-step on the part of the anti-proroguing movement – unavoidable, I would venture, given its grass-roots structure – trying to turn this rally into an anti-war protest does more harm than good, because the Afghan detainee issue isn’t about whether or not we should be at war. We know the pro-war/anti-war arguments are unwinnable. To turn the anti-prorogation debate into an anti-war debate is to take it out behind the barn and shoot it.

As for resignation, Harper doesn’t do anything by majority rule, even rule – he can’t; he doesn’t have a majority. So you can cross that one off your list. I’m trying to keep this non-partisan, but if you know even a little bit about the man you know that resignation at the urging of even several hundred thousand people is not his style. For similar reasons I don’t think parliament is going to return to session at their regularly scheduled time. Also, that would be tomorrow, and I think I would have heard.

Yes, those were straw arguments, but each of those objectives was on the agenda of at least some of the attendees and speakers at the Toronto rally. Of course, we all wanted Harper to know that we’re opposed to prorogation. But just between you and me, I think he knows. He reads the papers. I think it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t really care that much. Not only does he know what we think and not care, he will go on the record saying “I don’t think Canadians are interested in that” when asked about, for example, the Afghan detainee issue (this was in his interview with Peter Mansbridge from a few weeks back). He went on to say that what he really thinks Canadians are interested is the economy. So not only does he lie about what he knows, he claims to know what I’m thinking, and then to top it off he goes on to imply that like a house cat, a Canadian is only capable of being interested in one thing. Whatever you can say about this guy, you can’t say he cares what Canadians think – particularly if they disagree with him, or are interested in talking about stuff that he doesn’t want to talk about. What a coincidence! They’re interested in the economy, and I’m an economist. I guess I can just keep doing what I’m doing then, and everyone will be happy.

Of course, I am kind of interested in the economy. I’m interested in lots of things, and the economy is one of them. But I’m not sure I want the Prime Minister devoting all his time to it, even if he knows what’s wrong with it. Because let me tell you, there are lots of economists out there, and if they could fix the economy I bet they would have already and we would have moved on to other things.

Finally, we have some good news. Of all the things I get the impression that people were interested in accomplishing, we have come to one that we can achieve: we can absolutely get press coverage and publicity. We’ve proven that. There are two things we want to keep in mind about this accomplishment though. 1) It can most certainly be done if you get enough people in one place, or rallied around one cause, and the anti-prorogation movement has a pretty big base of support to draw on. 2) Publicity is not an end unto itself. Publicity is a media channel. Publicity will give you the front page of the paper, but if you don’t have a message to fill that real estate with, you’re wasting your effort. So save that for a moment: we need a message.

Defining our target audience

We know that whatever we get people together shouting, whether it’s “Down with this sort of thing” or “Make meatless Mondays mandatory” or whatever, as long as we have enough people we will get attention. So I say let’s not even list that in our objectives. Whatever we do, if we do it right, we’ll have that. Let’s set our sights a little higher. Why don’t we attempt to convince Harper’s support base that his actions are irresponsible? Why don’t we try to change the minds of people whose minds we may actually be able to change?

Sounds crazy, I know. But I’m not talking about turning Conservatives into New Democrats or Liberals. If we can manage to do that, great. But if at the very least we can convince Conservatives to tell their representatives that they disapprove of Harper’s techniques, we can perhaps sow some dissent and instability. There’s no point trying to argue that Harper isn’t behaving how a socialist would act. But there’s a strong argument that he isn’t behaving as a Canadian should act – and yes, even a Canadian Conservative.

This is the point in the marketing brief where we ask the question, “Who are we talking to?” and someone drags out some research and establishes a demographic, tells us as much as they know about their belief system and habits. I don’t really have that information in front of me at the moment. But I have met some Conservatives, and I think we can find some common ground that anti-proroguers can share with them, while putting the current Conservative government on the other side of the fence. What follows are some broad generalizations. There’s probably tons of publicly-available data out there for us to draw on, but here are the broad strokes.

Conservatives have a strong work ethic. They believe you should work hard for what you want, and when you get it, you should be able to keep it. If you don’t get what you want, you probably aren’t working hard enough at it.

Conservatives are very proud and supportive of our military. I like to think most of us are, from the anti-war protester to the right-wing hawk. The reputation of Canada’s military as an internationally-recognized peacekeeping force can only serve to bolster the awe that you or I might feel about the type of person who volunteers to lay down his or her life in the service of our country, for the benefit of people who they will likely never know, who may or may not share their political ideals.

Conservatives are fiercely independent. They are entrepreneurs and self-made men, frontiersmen and oil-rig workers and so forth. They don’t like being told what to do, on principle. They see equivocation as weakness, and often perceive intellectuals as people who would rather talk than act. I understand this conflict well, being a fiercely independent intellectual who doesn’t like being told that he should act when he would rather be thinking.

I must reiterate, the preceding points are purely anecdotal and subjective. I wouldn’t suggest we proceed with them without a great deal of research to either substantiate or revise them. Communication briefs work on the same principle as computer programming: garbage in, garbage out.

Defining the message

no. and yes.We’re into the home stretch here. We know what we’re trying to accomplish, we know who we’re talking to, and we know a bit about them. Now it’s to craft our message. We want to keep it simple and to the point (much unlike this blog post you’re reading). I won’t get into media tactics, but think about what advertisements look like. Banner ad? 15 seconds. Billboard? Fewer than 10 words. Start with a single message that could stand alone in one of these media. You can’t follow up with your supporting statements if you don’t have their attention.

Based on the information we have, we’re going to try to convince conservatives that Harper must go. Why? Because he is not representing the ideals of the people who voted for him. Here are some thought starters based on what we know about Conservative beliefs. Here’s Harper not living up to the Conservative work ethic:

If Harper was your employee and he asked you for a month off with pay, what would you say? Well guess what: he is your employee.

or here’s another one:

Are you getting a month off to watch the Olympics? Steven Harper is.

Here’s Harper undermining the troops:

Harper and MacKay are running away from their bad defense policy decisions, and our troops are getting caught in the crossfire.

Note: in any discussion of Canada’s role in any military action it is important to keep in mind what marketers know: there is no room for nuance in mass communication. When Harper says he doesn’t think Canadians are interested in Afghanistan, he follows up by saying he knows Canadians support our troops. This is a brilliant bit of manipulation. It eliminates the distinction between our troops and our policy, between our responsibility to international conventions and the behaviour of our policy-makers. That means that if you oppose Harper’s defense policy, you’re trash-talking the troops. Tread carefully here. No matter how Harper tries to spin it, the detainee scandal isn’t about our troops, it’s about policy.

And finally, about independence. This is just a first thought. I would love to work in something about Harper governing without consensus from a bunker à la Dick Cheney, but this could easily backfire.

Harper says he’s taking a month off to find out what Canadians think. Has he asked you yet?


Harper says he already knows what Canadians think. Did he ask you?

Now what?

Once you have your brief finalized, then hand it to the creative thinkers to brainstorm. Hopefully you’ll end up with some solid talking points that everyone can understand. Make sure all your supporters get the message. When you’re onstage at your rally, don’t preach to the converted. Your audience is everyone else. When the press comes knocking, stay on message. If you play your cards right, you’ll be writing the headline in the next day’s paper.

I’m going to wrap this up. I’ve gone on too long. This needs editing, but I think getting the ideas out there trumps my writerly vanity at this point. I’ve attributed some quotes to Harper and I haven’t included cites. I think they’re mostly from the January 5th Mansbridge interview, and may not be verbatim. I tried to retrieve the video and it stalled, and I’m lazy. I may have called Peter MacKay a jackass. I have come to that conclusion from my own empirical observation.