Ottawa: They Thought You Wouldn't Notice, Now They Are Hoping You Will Forget - Politically Strategizing the Public Sentiment

Ottawa: They Thought You Wouldn't Notice, Now They Are Hoping You Will Forget - Politically Strategizing the Public Sentiment
Posted on September 8, 2016 | Valarie Findlay | Written on September 8, 2016
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Author's Note:

Author's Note:

" ... Indeed, politicians have learned that in the heat of the race, or in the face of conflict, there is limited return on being honest or presenting a good argument and facts in order to persuade or calm the masses ... " 

Valarie Findlay is a research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) and holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrew's and is preparing her doctoral thesis on terrorism as a social phenomenon. She can be contacted at:

They Thought You Wouldn't Notice, Now They Are Hoping You Will Forget: Politically Strategizing the Public Sentiment

"To act as a physician, the priest must make one sick." - Friedrich Nietzsche 

While Nietzsche  was speaking about Christianity and ascetic priests, this can easily apply to politicians and those who rely on suggestion, influence and persuasion to excel to the their aspired plateaus. It seems simple enough: strategists and lobbyists tell politicians, who tell the public, that something is wrong and it must be righted. And then the public tells the politicians, using their sentiment and eventually their vote, whether they concur. If they don't concur, this is where the shell game begins with verbal flourish and sleight of hand.

But is it just a shell game? Indeed, politicians have learned that in the heat of the race, or in the face of conflict, there is limited return on being honest or presenting a good argument and facts in order to persuade or calm the masses. Sadly, manipulating and modifying perception and decision-making through large scale strategies and highly coordinated persuasion can carry far less risk than being transparent and upfront. In the 1980s, studies on risk-averse and risk-taking behaviours by Kahneman and Tversky showed that certain words used in choices, questions and statements could elicit completely unanticipated answers or reactions, and could therefore be used to direct the desired response.

As the tradecraft evolved, it was elaborated to include framing, which relies on identifying emotional and psychological responses to socially and culturally-loaded words to reverse preferences. For example, the term 'gay marriage' can evoke a very different emotional response than 'same-sex marriage' in some demographics, as does 'layoffs', 'downsizing' or 'rightsizing' and phrases, such as 'lowering the crime rate" or 'improving assistance for the poor', as opposed to  'increasing law enforcement budgets' or 'increasing welfare'. It became clear these individual constructs could be used to develop effective tactics to "make" people feel and behave differently, especially in instances where family structures, maternal and paternal views , were entrenched. This change is important for only a short period of time, until their vote is cast . In the end, it is the spin on the value proposition that is key; getting at that the intrinsic value of the benefit by exploiting perceptions is what can tip the scale in the favoured direction.

With this need, a lucrative 'ghost industry' emerged that really only exists when powerful, goal-aggressive individuals with deep pockets and high stakes converge with intensively researched and tested strategies. Sophisticated in its design, it is based on a myriad of disciplines - marketing, advertising, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, public relations and lobbyists - and is served the public through multiple channels of media. When the stakes are high, as in federal politics, international appointments or selling national or global initiatives, you can bet public concerns are meticulously solicited and researched and strategies are developed to reach not only the majority but the middle ground, where battles are often won or lost.

Trickery? Yes. Unethical, well ... that depends on the audience, the motive and the whole of the mechanisms employed - and if you get caught. Remember the Nayirah testimony? Many won't (and you'll know why later). In October 1990, during the Bush administration, testimony was given before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus by a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as Nayirah. Her testimony was heart-wrenching - she described a hospital invasion by Iraqi soldiers, who stole incubators and leaving hundreds of babies to die on the cold hospital floor. Widely publicized, the testimony was used by President Bush as the rationale for the US role in the Gulf War and it worked - the public was outraged and sentiment indicated that US military involvement was indeed justified.

However, two years later it was discovered that Nayirah's testimony was an elaborate PR stunt; Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and her testimony was part of a bold public relations campaign by Hill & Knowlton (US) on behalf of the 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait', a public relations committee set up by the Kuwaiti embassy, and Kuwaiti government. Referred to as an example of 'sophisticated corruption' and 'atrocity propaganda', it was argued that Iraq did commit atrocities - a lot of them, which is true but does that erase the egregiousness of the manufacturing this one? The Nayirah scandal was astonishing as a rouse and, after the fact when the cover was blown, as a demonstration of how to create conflict in the minds of the public and exploit their short term memory to foster support for the actions of a government.

While Canadian politics are no stranger scandals - the Mulroney/Schreiber dealings, the Liberal government's sponsorship scandal, the Senate expense scandal and many more - for the most part, they employ less sophisticated, but just as galling, tactics of achieve their objectives. So subtle, often these tactics are unbeknownst to us even though they are right under our noses: manipulation of language or statistics to drive down an issue to that of a non-issue, carpet-bombing with repetitive messages to deflect or cover an issue, or going completely dark on the matter and ignoring an issue entirely.

Ottawa recently had a taste of all three in a municipal level conflict that pitted the chief of Ottawa Police Services (OPS) and the chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) - and later the Mayor - against the Ottawa Police Association (OPA) union president and members they represent. In short, the union president had brought forward complaints numerous time to the Board on behalf of the police members - a perceived double-standard afforded to higher ranks and other internal issues that had begun to foster a deep, negative sentiment in the organization - that were treated as dubious, denied or ignored. As this crept into the media on a regular basis, in part due to some police members approaching the media in their frustration, the public began to take notice.

A burr under the saddles of the chief and chair of the OPSB, the union president persisted in his demand for fairness, impartiality and oversight for police service members, well within his mandate, and the chief and the board chair continued to deny that there were any relevant and/or substantial internal concerns. While bomb after bomb hit the media with what appeared to indicate the opposite - or at least, warrant a thorough investigation by a neutral party, the chief and chair appeared shocked and exasperated, but unfazed as they seemed to go about 'business' as usual. But the Mayor surprised many by going into high DARVO - deny, attack and reverse victim/offender - and breaking his public silence and openly attacking and blaming the union president for the deterioration of the public's confidence in the police services.

Then he took a swipe a nearly anyone whose opinion differed from his. "Non-experts" who weighed in were derided (odd, as many of the Board and councillors could also be considered non-experts considering their educational and professional backgrounds) and dissatisfied police service members were told publicly, if they were " not happy with their job, they can leave and stop accepting a pay cheque". Days later he attempted to calm the outcry by unapologetically blaming his blunt nature and still maintaining the chief was doing "an excellent job" - there would always be unsatisfied employees in any organization. What was troubling to many was the inflammatory and reactive nature of the comments and that they were not in line with the actual complaints - allegations reported in the media didn't constitute interpersonal issues or employee dissatisfaction, but concerns of corruption and circumventing policies for the benefit of a select few.

If maintaining the status quo was the goal, then the key to that was getting all of this out of the media immediately; the mayor, chief and chair met with the union president within days and it was resolved that they would meet on a regular basis and the issues would be dealt with privately. In retrospect, the transgression may have had less to do with challenging and attempting to unseat two disciples of the Mayor's court - irrespective of their behaviours - and more to do with an underling tooling with Ottawa's utopian image. To that point, the Mayor's words in the media contrasted greatly with his Twitter account: he continued to blanket the Twitterverse with good news stories, hamburgers, tractors and unicorns - and back-patting - with no mention of the issues at hand.

While not usual for politicians to use Twitter as a controlled marketing tool, not one of engagement, discussion or feedback, the issues did not exist. On the other hand, the chair of the OPSB didn't hesitate to air his provocative comments in the media but his Twitter account was blasted with pro-policing Tweets directly in concert with the sporadic negative headlines. Some came off as cow-towing, as he clearly eschewed the mounting dissent in the police service, and others were oddly off point. In the midst of the melee, the Mayor shot off a jovial Tweet to the chair "nice to see you working at McDonald's" (referring to his volunteering during McHappy Days). His reply of "The pay the same [sic]" seemed to lack appropriateness at any time.

But the chair's 'shoot from the lip style' is not new in his role as chair or as councillor. As far back as 2009, when Mayor O'Brien appointed a new communications chief who was known to have a bit of a problem with information-leaks, one involving a tape of a conversation that she left behind in a Parliament Hill bathroom, the chair was quick to indicate she would not be his first choice. However, he offered his advice to the young woman, "we have many washrooms in City Hall, so she should be careful". This dance with infamy through sensational zingers will likely die hard, even though his recent discourse on low police morale, Board refusal to investigate the chief's alleged court interference of a family traffic ticket and revelations of 'secret' police meetings is plainly out of character.

Irrespective of the above, it may be that denying, ignoring and attacking, although effective in the past, were poorly chosen tactics on this matter. A recent, unsponsored poll conducted by Forum Research Inc., who does lists the City of Ottawa as a client on their website, on the trending support of the Mayor, chief, chair and union president shows substantial drops in support and respondents viewed as active voters, typically university educated, 'boomer' cohorts and high income earners, appearing most dissatisfied. Closer examination of the poll questions revealed that 29% of respondents were not aware of the recent controversies between the factions nor of the Chief's hiring controversy. To what extent this impacts overall support is unclear but one would suspect that if that 29% were aware, a more negative sentiment would have resulted.

If this were to occur in the private sector, there would have been action to appease any outcry from shareholders; after all, Steve Jobs was ousted for less - the internal rebellion by employees was enough to rankle Apple's tight-fisted shareholders who feared that low employee satisfaction would impact productivity and delivery to market. While one might think voter sentiment is akin to that of company shareholders, it is not. Where the public and municipal employees have been encouraged to provide feedback on inefficiencies, misconduct and general operational concerns, the recent conduct is baffling. What about the police service members who did come forward - and others considering a similar move? It was reported that at least one is facing reprisal, possibly sending a strong message to the entire organization.

Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University and RCMP expert, had warned during the numerous controversies that the RCMP endured over the years, the future reforms will be hard to achieve if the government is seen punishing the complainants for speaking out. Many of these controversies were brought to light by many internal members, and in one case the outright rebellion of only a few senior members that unseated Comm. Bill Elliott. Duxbury also predicted that "if you shoot the messenger, don't expect more messengers". It would seem that the coordination and mobilization of complainants in numbers is certainly more effective than filing in one by one or on a weekly basis (unless it is a few of upper ranks). Presumably, the optic of an organization ignoring or punishing 50 or 100 complainants at once would be concerning and crippling.

All in all, it doesn't appear as though any dark arts of the psychological kind are at play in tactics at the municipal level but as mentioned when the stakes are high, politicians do some extraordinary things. In the drama swirling around the police services, the incongruity of reactions towards the issues raised are what makes one wonder how high and what are the stakes. Maybe we'll never know. For now, the "bickering" is going to be kept amongst themselves and behind the Mayor's closed door - two strategic moves in one. That is, until grievances are yet again aired in the public domain and the police membership and public stir from their weariness and resume their demand for fairness and transparency; Tony Robbins had said "change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change". Perhaps that's the hope to hold on to.

In the meantime, trust that politicians, at all levels, are at least banking the public's complacency and short memory and that most will forget about issues that don't directly affect their daily lives. At the same time, they are finding ways to ensure that you hear exactly what you want, and need, to hear to cement their success, as we move closer to a voting year. While hindsight is twenty-twenty, judicious advice would be to keep your eyes fixed firmly on all that is put before you, with scrutiny, to get a very clear picture of what is really going on.

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