Has federal government communications and marketing become too politicised?

It seems that every day in the past year we hear about government scandals in Canada. It is happening at all levels of government.  Many citizens are starting to wonder what is going on. We have had F35 Fighter Jet Scandal, CFIA Scandal (tainted meat), Canadian Senate expenses scandal and the list goes on. I don’t plan to focus on the scandals themselves but look at it from a communications marketing perspective.

How do communications and marketing functions operate when every day the government they serve is under intense scrutiny?

I had the opportunity to work in the federal government during the sponsorship scandal which was a scandal dealing with the misuse of marketing and communications in the federal government

Throughout 2005, the interest of Parliament, the media, and the nation was held by the Gomery Inquiry into what became known as the “sponsorship scandal.”

Under intensifying media coverage and in tandem with two critical reports from the Auditor General, the program slowly evolved into one of the most prominent and extensive political scandals Canada has known.

The program’s tentacles reached as high as the Prime Minister’s Office and included the Liberal Party, two former prime ministers, ministers of the Crown, Québec advertising agencies. While under investigation by the Gomery Commission, the program was the subject of an RCMP inquiry and criminal prosecutions for fraud.

As Kirstin Kozolanka points out in her article , The Sponsorship Scandal as Communications: The Rise of Politicized and Strategic Communications in the Federal Government, the public and media focus was concentrated on the partisan political side of the the scandal. However, it masked a more ominous dimension: the increasingly strategic role of communications in government.

The sponsorship program began as a communications activity, one of many promotional activities that developed in government throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The sponsorship program is emblematic of the kind of excessive self-promotional activities that have entered into the communications operations of government. The program was part of a development in government communications that had politicized public employees and public policy making as an extension of partisan interests – in this case, in the interest of a particular conception of national unity.

As Kirsten Kozolanka points out, the shifts in the policy making environment, media systems and practice, and political culture fostered the conditions under which the sponsorship program operated. These shifts emphasize and contributed to an intensification of a strategic role for government communications in structuring public understanding and approval for the government.

The application of strategic communications has shifted focus from substance to image, from information to promotion, and from policy to communications. While it is legitimate for governments to communicate with citizens and it is not unusual for them to want to persuade those citizens, the question becomes when and where to draw the line.

Now an independent public service can accommodate modern marketing techniques if it has the checks and balances. Health Canada, for instance, had a well-functioning social marketing program for public health promotion campaigns for many years. But after Gomery, a decision was made to centralize all of the advertising money in each department into the Privy Council Office which led to a politicization of advertising (see blogs written on the  economic action plan:  http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/02/18/canadians-weary-of-economic-action-plan-ads/  and http://www.jimmintz.ca/2013/07/24/why-would-you-run-a-government-ad-campaign-that-is-a-bust/ )

Communications and marketing at all levels of government has become embedded in the structure of government; and the communications work environment has become more politicized by centralized operations and direction; Strategic communications and this would include marketing relies on embedding communications and marketing activities into the structures of the public service, thus institutionalizing it, and then consolidating it within centralized functions.

Therefore when scandal hits the government, communications and marketing people in today’s public service communicators tend to become involved in assisting in the defense of the government. They are left with little choice as the whole communications and marketing function have become, in the past decade, an integral part of the government and has become politicized.

For example, the government has come under fire for spending tens of millions of dollars on various marketing campaigns touting its economic policies as well as some that allege it is “protecting the environment” and promoting “responsible” development of natural resources. Public accounts documents recently tabled in Parliament reported at least $50 million in advertising by various departments over the past year, not including a new proposed $24-million campaign over two years for international marketing and public relations efforts to promote Canadian oil companies operating in the oil sands region of western Canada. Source:

Partisan political advertising masquerading as vital government information or public service was not invented by the Conservative government. The Liberals did the same thing in their time, but since 2006, the Conservative government has taken the practice to new heights.

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On radio and television, in newspapers and online, the government is using advertising  to tell Canadians what a wonderful job their government is doing, blurring the line between partisan commercials and genuine public service advertising.

Where will it end, who knows?

Well here is another post that clearly indicates that the federal government advertising has become too politicized. Nov 18 2014.

Let know what you think.

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Marketing Public Sector Programs has become a Real Challenge

Is it becoming impossible to successfully run effective government marketing campaigns?.

We are now living in an over-saturated communications society with a tremendous amount of  marketing noise. Multichannel, 24/7 media, 400 TV channels, explosion of digital media how do you break through all the clutter? It is becoming a herculean task and demonstrating once more  the importance of marketing  concepts like branding, positioning and  segmentation.  At our Centre our mantra of “strategy before tactics” has never been more relevant. Every day we see lame attempts by non-profits and public sector organizations attempting to communicate to their audiences by using slip shod poorly crafted communication and marketing efforts without any strategy and seriously thinking that they can get their message heard or read. Even in cases when an organization has all the money and strategy  in the world and throws everything but the kitchen sink at a marketing program , there is no guarantee of success.

Take the Economic Action Plan here in Canada.  Last year, it was difficult to turn on the television or radio, glance at a newspaper, or drive anywhere in Canada without seeing marketing touting the federal government’s Economic Action Plan. It was the backdrop to almost every Minister’s appearance day in day out. Not to mention MP’s bearing giant cheques with the logo. The federal government ordered its bureaucrats across the country to track every single sign promoting the federal economic stimulus program.  This exercise began last summer, when the first signs were posted, and now spans eighteen departments and agencies.

Visitors watching Atlantic waves crash into the eastern tip of Newfoundland this summer couldn’t miss the iconic Cape Spear lighthouse, billboards advertised economic stimulus dollars at work, Similar signage blanketed the  the country featuring Economic Action Plan.  source

We’re not talking a few posters here, but 8,587, as of August 27 2010, and counting.   Multiply 8,527 by the price of a medium-sized sign, for argument’s sake, and the government would have shelled out $1,751,748. That figure, of course, would not include the cost of determining the signs’ location, or transporting, installing, and tracking them.

The advertising campaign for the government’s economic stimulus package—which uses a logo of rising green, blue and gray arrows—was launched in early 2009. The campaign includes a slick website, full-page ads in major newspapers and television spots. It cost $89-million last year. source

So what are the results of the most massive marketing communications campaign seen in recent history:

41 per cent of Canadians (57 per cent of Quebecers) had never heard of the Economic Action Plan.

More than half of those over 60 – the ones who normally pay more attention to news and vote more frequently than young people – hadn’t heard of the plan.

And among those who’d heard of the plan, most didn’t really know what it was about.

These results emerged from an Environics poll conducted last April for the Department of Finance.

Why did this program not achieve better  results? Hard to say. Was it because of the quality of the creative? Bad media placement? Bad strategy? Or was it because  as Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail points out this campaign did not have major impact because a whole lot of people aren’t interested in anything governmental, and/or they’re just misinformed about a lot of things.

So what’s the lesson here? Well one thing for sure the “tonnage” of marketing and communications resources may not matter if the message does not resonate with the intended target audience. Or maybe our expectations are too high and some will interpret these results as being great considering the topic area and the cynicism of  all things government .

May be if they had Stratford Ontario rocker Justin Bieber (and you thought the only thing that came out of Stratford was the festival)  delivering the message we may have had more resonance with young people  ( and their parents?) or Canadian icon  Don Cherry could have delivered the sports bar  crowd. The fact is that delivering messages is certainly getting difficult these days.

Let me know what you think.

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