Deconstructing the B.C. Liberal spin campaign to protect Christy Clark during the teachers strike
The B.C. Teachers' Federation has made a pretty good case that education is underfunded in B.C.
Using Statistics Canada data, it argues that the B.C. government ranked second-last in per-pupil funding.
Teachers pay in B.C. lags behind most provinces. Their last wage increase was a 0.5 percent raise in 2010, followed by a freeze over the last three years.
Despite these inescapable facts, websites are filled with comments slamming teachers and praising the Christy Clark government's opposition to binding arbitration. How can this be? I'll answer this question later.
In the meantime, provincial governments in Ontario and Alberta are investing far more heavily than B.C. in K-12 public education. Per-pupil funding in Alberta reached $10,111 last year, whereas in Ontario it was $11,266. B.C. lags far behind at $8,654.
Political leaders in those other provinces know that a great school system is essential to competing in the knowledge-based economy. The B.C. government is the outlier. Yet our students still perform well in many subjects.
It reflects the dedication of our teachers and the strength of our teacher-training programs. However, there's still room for improvement, particularly in mathematics.
Teachers shouldn't be surprised to learn that Clark was education minister when the province abandoned an initiative to improve math instruction more than a decade ago. (Read the details here.) Clark also introduced legislation shredding the teachers' contract in 2002, which led directly to the current strike over class size and composition.
Political parties are experts in spin
In light of the strong performance of B.C. students, teachers might wonder why their work isn't valued in the surreal world of media-comment sections.
Anyone who has stood before a classroom knows that teaching is physically gruelling and emotionally exhausting. It's also incredibly rewarding when a student gains self-confidence after mastering a new concept or exhibits astonishing creativity. The best teachers selflessly love their students, giving of themselves repeatedly to nurture success.
Unfortunately for teachers, they're facing a B.C. Liberal government mostly run by MLAs who've never done this. (A notable exception is Social Development Minister Don McRae.)
However unlike the teachers, Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender have vast experience in the world of media relations and marketing. And that gives them an advantage in the battle for public perceptions.
Author delivers insight into spin doctoring
A new book, Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on Its Head (House of Anansi), author and branding expert Clive Veroni explores changes taking place in the world of marketing.
Veroni argues that by manipulating social media and making use of computer data, political strategists are teaching the corporate world how to reshape public opinion. It's a monumental change from the past when politicians leaned on corporate advertising whizzes to learn how to craft messages.
Central to the success of modern political parties is the war room. That's where political p.r. experts design their messages, which are blasted out continuously to fortify a candidate and destroy opponents.
The 1993 documentary The War Room focused on how two Bill Clinton advisers, James Carville and George Stephanopolous, put then president George H.W. Bush on the defensive in the 1992 presidential campaign.
In political war rooms, speed is essential. Veroni notes that Carville is seen in the film wearing a T-shirt with the letters: "SPEED KILLED...BUSH."
"Speed can actually trump message content," Veroni writes. "In other words, how fast you say something will sometimes have greater impact than what you say."
That's why B.C.'s education minister, Fassbender, is seemingly ubiquitous. He's the government front man, repeatedly popping up on radio, television, and in newspapers.
Veroni points out that war rooms help build and motivate winning teams, who are "nimble, creative, and fiercely driven to succeed".
War-room vets know that negative opinions spread rapidly, so they quash them wherever possible, including through social media.
Veroni also notes that it's no longer a 24-hour news cycle. He maintains there's now a constant flow of information that can be sampled at the convenience of voters and consumers at any time.
"The trick is to be fast enough to shape the wave and not just ride it or, worse, be overcome by it," he writes. "In this environment, the first-mover advantage takes on much greater significance."
That's why I'm never surprised by how quickly supporters of the B.C. Liberal government pounce with comments below any article I write questioning the handling of the teachers strike. It usually happens within 20 minutes of something going on this website.
Protect the general
So why is Fassbender the front man and not Clark? For an answer, you have to go back to an earlier book by progressive journalist Mark Hertsgaard.
In On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, he noted that Michael Deaver, a spinmeister for then president Ronald Reagan, always felt that a lieutenant, i.e. a cabinet secretary, should be used to deal with political conflicts. That's because the general, i.e. the president, was harder to replace.
This explains Clark's disappearing act when classrooms closed in September and why she prefers commenting on anything but the teachers strike. That's because it has the potential to derail her leadership.
It's one reason why I sometimes post large photos of Clark above my online articles about the teachers strike. It's a way to interrupt the government attempt to spin this as Fassbender's issue when the premier is ultimately responsible for the strike.
After all, she gave the finance minister a mandate to balance the budget every year. She chose the education minister. And she can replace him if this teachers strike gets too hot.
Commenting on the strike
Below my articles on the B.C. teachers strike, you sometimes see a large number of people making comments with specific talking points supporting the government's position.
It's especially true when I try to counter the government's framing of this dispute as teachers being greedy. Or when I suggest that the premier, and not the BCTF, caused the strike. That sends the B.C. Liberal spinmeisters into overdrive because articles like these strike at the core of the government's messaging.
There's no doubt that some of these comments on our website are authentic, but I suspect that others are being orchestrated. We've also seen this in our letters to the editor, where messages come in praising the B.C. government's approach to mining, energy or some other topic. They read like they were all penned by the same author.
Sometimes during the teachers strike, commenters may try to discredit me personally, which is a standard political tactic.
If you don't like the message, destroy the messenger. That's politics 101. When I see some of these comments, I take it as a compliment that I've got the attention of those orchestrating the spin campaign on behalf of the premier.
I'm not suggesting that all personal attacks fall into this category. Far from it. But I've been around long enough to suspect when manipulation of the comments section or an online survey is occurring.
Manipulation via websites
If there is indeed some B.C. Liberal manipulation of comment sections about the teachers strike, it wouldn't be the first time. I've seen this type of political shenanigan on Straight.com in the past.
For example, I recall when we ran an online survey asking readers to identify B.C.'s worst premier over the past generation.
For the initial period, Gordon Campbell was well out in front, followed by Glen Clark, Christy Clark, and then Bill Vander Zalm. Hardly anyone voted for Mike Harcourt. That seemed like an accurate reflection of our readers' views at the time.
Then overnight, Glen Clark blew past Campbell and Vander Zalm surpassed Christy Clark. At the time, I suspected this trick was accomplished with an automated program. That's because there aren't that many people awake at that time of the night to steer a vote so dramatically.
It smelled of skulduggery but when I suggested this, the trolls went on the attack.
On another occasion, I posted an online survey asking who was the most disliked political journalist in B.C. For fun, I included my name on the list and won in a landslide.
I captured well over 90 percent of the votes, far ahead of Keith Baldrey, Mike Smyth, Vaughn Palmer, and Gary Mason. It was like an election in Turkmenistan.
I asked our tech people how this could happen. I was informed that a massive number of votes had come from a bot. Once those were deleted from the count, it was a neck-and-neck race between Baldrey and Smyth. I was farther down the list.
Teachers can learn from marketers
While teachers sometimes make the mistake of using Twitter to attack journalists like Baldrey and Smyth, political marketers are much savvier. They do it anonymously in the comment section of websites, leaving no fingerprints. Yet it still casts doubt on what's been said or written by the journalist.
If teachers were more aware of how political marketers operate, they might not engage in Twitter arguments with journalists, who interact with politicians on a daily basis. To high-profile journalists, people in the political world seem reasonable because they don't do this.
Teachers, on the other hand, sometimes come across as being out of control. And that influences how these journalists feel about each side in the dispute.
Evolution of political communications
It's amazing how things have changed over the years. The first important book on political marketing, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss, chronicled how Richard Nixon hired TV and advertising specialists to reshape his image in the 1968 campaign.
Foremost among them was Roger Ailes, who went on to become the boss of Fox News.
Hertsgaard later showed how Reagan's aide, Deaver, tamed the media by creating a "Morning in America" image around the president, relying heavily on photo ops.
In that era, the president's contact with the media was sharply restricted. Greater access was granted to those who didn't rock the boat. And instead of trotting out the general to comment on everything, cabinet secretaries became the bearers of bad news.
A few years later, former federal Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella wrote extensively about political war rooms and the value of "opposition research" in his 2001 book, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics. Kinsella relied heavily on Carville's approach to present the argument that the best defence is a good offence.
This helps explain the take-no-prisoners nature of modern politics. It's what we're observing in the government's handling of the teachers strike.
In his new book Spin, Veroni takes things a step further. He shows how corporations are using similarly divisive techniques, practising wedge politics with consumers.
One of Veroni's examples is a Ford ad mocking an earlier Cadillac ad.
Veroni also demonstrates how changing social attitudes are being exploited by corporations. In one campaign, Cheerios deliberately whipped up controversy by featuring an interracial couple. Honey Maid did the same thing by presenting a same-sex couple with a baby in one of its ads.
These companies knew that some American viewers would hate these messages, but that they would inspire deep loyalty from another segment of the population.
He argues that by practising the politics of polarization, corporations can win fervent supporters. Sound familiar? The B.C. Liberal government is behaving the same way in its response to the teachers strike.
The lesson from McGinniss's book is to get the advertising experts involved. Fassbender came from this industry.
The lesson from Hertsgaard's book is shield the leader at all costs, which is why Clark has mostly gone AWOL.
The lesson from Kinsella's book is attack your opponents. Hence, the confrontational approach to the BCTF.
And the lesson from Veroni's book is that wedge politics works, not only for elected officials but also for corporations. Let's not kid ourselves—this government often acts like a corporation in how it guards the bottom line, fights its opponents, and maintains secrecy.
Teachers shouldn't get discouraged
Teachers are hopelessly outgunned in the marketing arena by the government and the B.C. Liberals.
However, they shouldn't feel too demoralized by what's happening over the airwaves and on websites.
That's because many voters still trust teachers far more they'll ever trust most politicians.
This is despite B.C. Liberal political marketers' efforts to undermine this by writing scripted comments for the premier painting teachers as greedy, unprincipled, and self-centred.
Clark stuck to the script in her only commentary to reporters by claiming that teachers want unlimited massages and massive pay increases. It won't go down as her finest moment in politics.
In fact, I would be shocked if Clark was the real author of the tweets going out under her name about the teachers strike. In today's political world, it's far more likely that they were crafted by a committee of spin doctors.
"Politics is a frequently cynical business," Veroni writes "It seems to attract more than its fair share of charlatans, tricksters, and toadies."
Parents and teachers should keep this in mind while reading comments under articles about the strike, including this one. Manipulation can take on many forms.
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:11am
There is lots of truth in what is said here. I have, on occasion, managed to post one of the first 1 - 5 comments on globe and mail articles. Vote for yourself to give a little forward momentum, and see what happens. Now, if I was paid to do this, by government, and if there were others doing the same work, that could set the tone for an entire discussion thread. That's why comment threads and online polls should be taken with a big grain of salt. Teachers should take heart from the real world support they are getting from people on the streets, in the grocery stores, and stopping by the lines.
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:34am
I completely agree with this. I whole heartedly support the teachers and actually after reading into what has happened to them and the judgements saying Christy Clarks actions stripped teachers of their constitutional rights and that the United Nations said this violated their human rights I am embarrased that the liberal government would do this. It is also embarrassing how B.C. does not value education and is actually the second lowest in investment in our childrens future. My fury rose to a boiling point as I sat at the last B.C. Lions game and stared up at the half billion dollar roof that only opens half way and my brother visiting from Alberta said I guess we all know where the stripped money from the last 10 years of education in this province went. Wow, truly an eye opening moment. Embarrassing! Also, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the union is broke from fighting a decade long court case to defend their constitutional rights. Again, embarrasing how my tax dollars are being spent!
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:36am
Great article cementing what many of us have suspected for quite some time now. All comment sections in our major newspapers and other media sources who allow comments by readers are saturated by the usual suspect Liberal p.r. bulldogs attempting to shape the unsuspecting less savvy readers positions on important political issues. And it works well as shown by our last provincial election. What a burn when Christy walked onto the winners stage and proclaimed, "well that was easy." It was easy because the unsuspecting and less astute voters in this province were easily manipulated by her war room p. r. team. And that is what is happening now in the teachers strike.
Interesting to note there is some blowback coming from mainland China for their home stay kids over here landing on Christy now. She will bounce for them right quick. That may be the tail that wags the dog on this issue.
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:38am
Thanks you for bringing to light the depths to which our political parties will sink in order to shape public opinion. The Liberals, it seems, are masters of this kind of manipulation. How else could they have survived the anti HST backlash? Parents won't soon forget the current Liberal attack on our public schools. November 15 is recall time. Get ready for it.
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:59am
Is it true Christy will be unavailable for the start of the fall sitting in the Legislature as she will be visiting China? Are you practicing "Yes, Sorry and Thank You" in Cantonese, Pam?
"Troll", I guess.
Sep 12, 2014 at 10:59am
"If you don't like the message, destroy the messenger. That's politics 101. "
Ummm so Charlie doesn't like some of the comments so now he's attacking the posters who he disagrees with personally. Now that's a rich bit of hypocrisy right there. Impressive. I like how anyone who disagrees with the constant steam of propaganda coming out of the mouths the Union leaders is a "troll". You don't agree with Iker? YOU'RE A MORON, TROLL!!! Now that's smart. Lefties have fooled themselves into believing that everyone disagrees with them is a paid operative (or intellectuality vapid), yet all they do is lose elections and get hammered in negotiations because they over play their hand. Group think has sure worked out well for you in the past so please keep writing off the dissenters.
Sep 12, 2014 at 11:04am
Great article. I have been reading the comments, and I know the sympathetic comments are made by teachers, and the 'Liberal" comments are made by ...a blonde "Howie Meeker...
Sep 12, 2014 at 11:06am
This is total rubbish....the author fabricates a wild and ridiculous conspiracy to try and discredit our hard-working Premier and her Education Minister. The BC Liberals just don't operate that way.
Sep 12, 2014 at 11:14am
I guess by calling them out on their activity, you have silenced them in these comments seeing as no one has shot the messenger yet.
Sep 12, 2014 at 11:35am
This article explains why I am standing for school trustee in Comox Valley this fall. Someone has to demonstrate some balance and logic at the local level.