Controlling Your Political Brand

Tension often arises between the political and administrative aspects of government in a democracy. Elected politicians set the strategy and this should (ideally) reflect what the voters want. Administrators, e.g., civil servants, carry it out. The problem is that there isn’t always a clear line between good administration and political choice. In political communications this problem is very clear. Government communications need to explain programs but it is easy for this to become boosting the government of the day and spending public money to brag about any parties’ achievements seems inappropriate.

Alex Marland in Brand Command reviews the problem of government/political communications focusing  on the “Harper Government” — the Conservative administration under the leadership of Stephen Harper that until recently ran Canada. Marland provides an even-handed analysis and often points out that many communication choices can be seen as simply effective administration. Centralization of authority in the Prime Minister’s office may be a concern to many observers but having different ministries haphazardly launch competing initiatives is hardly a problem-free solution. Some centralization of control is surely necessary but how much is too much? Some professionalization of communications is good to convey effective messages and ensure cost efficiency but when does this become Orwellian? The book is packed with interesting examples letting the reader decide when centralization goes too far.

There are also important practical details about communications in the book. For example, just how much attention to detail is needed in managing political brands. Anyone who has worked with event management people knows that they have an irritating attention to detail. The reason why is shown in the story of John Turner’s devil’s horns. The Canadian prime minister in 1984 spoke in front of a sign with a couple of forks that when he was photographed appeared to be devil’s horns protruding from his head. The problem of unfortunate accidents only increases in a era of cell phone cameras and greater access to information. The conclusion is that, “Even minor back-ground gaffes must be avoided lest they are mocked in social media.” (Marland 2016, page 312).

Read: Alex Marland (2016) Brand Command:Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, University of British Columbia Press.