The Federal Liberal’s PR stumble

The Federal Liberal Party is no-doubt trying to figure out how they are running 3rd in opinion polls with a scant 17% support according to a recent numbers. After many stumbles and not winning the 2008 election they quickly disposed of uncharismatic party leader Stephane Dion, who despite hailing from Quebec City, didn’t even resonate with Quebec voters. They replaced him with a former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, considered one of the greatest minds in Canada, and who was lacking any political baggage. What could go wrong?

Well, by bringing in a virtual unknown into such a crucial position, they needed to communicate with Canadians about who Ignatieff is and why he should become Canada’s Prime Minister. Instead, the Conservatives seized the opportunity to leap in with their negative ad campaign that labelled Ignatieff as a traitor, an opportunist, an elitist and my personal favourite was how many times these ads would reveal no real skeletons in Ignatieff’s closet, but would either begin or end with quoting people saying, “Michael Ignatieff scares me.”

It comes down to basic public relations, really. The Conservatives earn full points for proactively painting an unflattering picture of the new, mostly unknown Liberal leader because it worked! I recall discussing the party leaders a year ago with a friend who had voted Liberal previously, and during this conversation she said “Ignatieff is scary.” When I pressed her to explain why, she said it was a feeling she got from him. Chances are that she retained that often-repeated message from the Conservative ads.

How could the Liberals have changed this? They needed to get out ahead of the powerful Tory smear machine and be the first to define Michael Ignatieff for the public. At the very least, they needed to counter those Conservative ads that started running shortly after he was elected party leader, instead of passively allowing the Tories to hijack any momentum they may have gained by having a brilliant intellectual, well versed in foreign policy, with no ties to the Martin government (or the sponsorship scandal) at the party’s helm.

By sitting by silently, hoping that Canadians would realize that the ads contained very little substance despite extensive Tory resources that went into digging up ‘damaging material’ on Ignatieff, the Liberals lost ground that simply cannot be recovered. It was a major tactical error, and no amount of campaigning or PR now can turn back the clock. Within months of the anti-Ignatieff campaign being launched, he became un-electable. Thus, after Monday’s election, chances are we will see Ignatieff, finishing in 2nd or 3rd place, resign and the Liberals start again with a new leader. This time, hopefully they will have learned a lesson and will get out ahead of any other parties in defining their new leader to the public.

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