Jillian Stead and Jeffrey Ferrier are former political operatives who now work for National Public Relations
Jillian Stead and Jeffrey Ferrier dig on how the NDP, Liberals and Greens can be expected to wage this war
B.C.’s upcoming provincial election promises to be like no other. For one, it’s going to be a pretty quick campaign, with just over a month from when Premier John Horgan called the contest (September 21) and when it’ll actually take place (October 24). And, of course, it’s going to happen while the province deals with a global pandemic.
So what can we expect from B.C.’s political parties in an unprecedented election?
We asked Vancouver-based National Public Relations strategists Jillian Stead, who served as manager of digital strategy for the BC Liberals during the 2017 election, and Jeffrey Ferrier, former senior staffer for Ontario’s NDP, to give us some insight.
You two have been in the backrooms during election campaigns. What’s going on right now behind the scenes for the BC Liberals and the BC NDP?
Jillian Stead: I think what both parties are doing is figuring out the sweet spot on their messaging and their platform. They’re trying to determine what messages are resonating with target audiences.
And we can see how they’re doing that right now through the Facebook Ad Library. It’s a new piece of transparency that Facebook brought in that didn’t exist in 2017, so it’s a totally new thing for campaigns to grapple with. We can see exactly what they’re trying to do strategically with their messaging. It’s one week into the campaign, they don’t have the advantage of doing the focus groups that they used to be able to do with big fancy ad firms, so they’re kind of doing it in real time.
Right now, you can see that the BC Liberals are going with a contrast-y message. You’re going to see a lot of John Horgan in dark, scary colours with some really strong language. There’s about 21 different variants of messaging they’re testing on that.
The BC NDP, on the other hand, it’s quite bright—lot of colours, lot of children, lot of faces, diversity. I can also see that they’re trying different messages in different regions of the province. There’s a few different ads out there speaking to issues on the Island. So that’s one thing I think they’re busy doing right now. Other thing is, how are they going to leverage these digital tools that have been around for a while—how are these parties going to leverage likes, comments and shares on Facebook and Twitter and turn it into real-life support? This is going to be where the data management side of things comes into full play this year. How they wield that voter ID data is going to be important as they try to pull these votes.
How do the leaders of those two parties shape how they’re going to wage a digital campaign?
Jeffrey Ferrier: For the NDP, you’re seeing a very different tone and approach to the presentation of the leader than you’re seeing from the BC Liberals. John Horgan is a strength—he’s well known, has some of the highest approval ratings in Canada leading up to this election among premiers. And where he’s very strong is on being the guy you want to have a beer with, the dad-joke-telling guy, the person who’s really good at having one-on-one conversations with people.
The NDP are looking at the last campaign. Its best moments and best visuals were spontaneous moments where Horgan interacted with people and people said, Well that’s a guy I like and a guy I’m willing to try out this time. So if you look at their digital, you have him talking with people; you have him, in some cases, very chunkily interacting on the phone with voters, trying to re-create some of those moments from the last campaign where he was with people. You’re seeing endorsers, stories of people who benefited from the NDP government the last three years—put them on child care, for example. That’s their focus.
The BC Liberals, they have a very smart and well-educated leader who is less effective pressing the flesh. Jill and I were talking about this and she said, This is a tailor-made campaign for Andrew Wilkinson. You see him talking at people, very controlled situations. A digital campaign, where you’re not out in the public as much, you’re not out at events as much, you don’t have to deal with hangups you might have. This being your first campaign and trying to find that groove of connecting with people on the ground in a very controlled, scripted campaign. That way they can present their leader in the best light. If you ask me, the NDP has a bigger challenge relating their candidates’ strengths in a digital campaign than the Liberals do.
Is negative messaging an effective tool in a digital-heavy campaign?
JS: One of the things I saw as a BC Liberal strategist is that millennials, now the largest voting demographic, don’t respond very well to the negative attack-ad style. That’s one consideration they’ll have to grapple with. They’re going to want to present a bit more of a positive message to those people, particularly during the time of COVID-19, where you saw a lot of politicians across Canada and the world saying, We’re in this together, we need to work together. That positive message that I think really resonated with younger people.
But where it plays well is with the older demographic, the people who grew up watching those attack ads on television. We also know that that’s a growing demographic online, especially on Facebook, where grandparents use it as a tool to speak to their children and grandchildren for free; they don’t have to pay the hefty phone bill. It’ll be interesting to see how they target those older demographics. And like I said at the top of the call, it’s interesting to see how the parties are going to grapple with the new ad transparency measures.
JF: Human beings are hard-wired for two emotional responses—approach things you like and run away from things you’re afraid of. And that’s why you see effective political campaigns using both positive and negative messaging. It speaks to how we as human beings make decisions about choices that’ll affect our lives. And you’ll see that from both the parties. Everyone says they hate negative ads, it turns them off, but you only need to look back to the 2013 provincial election to show what happens when you say no to negative and go all positive. The BC NDP entered that campaign with a huge lead, and Adrian Dix said they were going to run a different kind of campaign and weren’t going to hold other the party accountable for their record in government. And that, along with a whole host of other factors during the campaign, including a strong performance form Christy Clark, resulted in the NDP going from the party that could kick a dog and still win the election to being in opposition for another four years.
What did you think about the timing and execution of the BC Liberals’ recent promise that they’d cut provincial sales tax?
JF: It was an interesting announcement. The strategic imperatives that the Liberals are acting on there is that Andrew Wilkinson isn’t very well known. He has a reputation for being the guy who speaks at yacht clubs and thinks renting is wacky stuff. So they needed something that was easy to communicate to people during COVID that they had their back, that they understood financial pressures they were facing, and that they could be counted on to deliver on them. It’s a bit of a policy Hail Mary from the BC Liberals—very easy to communicate, very on-your-side politics. The challenge for the NDP right now will be to respond to this in a way that speaks to people’s concern about affordability, speaks to their fears about economic situation. I would expect the NDP to come out with a spending announcement of their own in short order that’s more targeted at low- and modest-income people that cuts out people at the top so they can continue delivering their campaign message that they’re on the side of the majority of BCers and the Liberals only care about people at the top and the rich.
JS: We’ll start to see the BC Liberals really pushing that message out via paid digital, using everything they can to get that message out there, and it’ll become the centrepiece of that messaging moving forward for the less than a month we have left here. The other platform we haven’t spoken about yet, which is a very important platform politically, is Twitter. It’s not a great place for winning new votes…
JF: Or maintaining sound mental health.
JS: [laughs] No, Twitter is not that place for people who can be swayed; it’s usually just for the hardcore partisans. But I’m going to be watching how the NDP spins and finds holes in this policy and gets that perspective in front of the media, who are also addicted to Twitter. Both sides of the party are going to spin what this announcement means for voters, and the NDP partisans will try finding and poking holes. And the media are looking at the echo chamber and extracting things they can take and quickly file new stories with.
JF: Typically, newsrooms would send reporters to shopping malls and the like and ask people what they think of this election policy to get a sense from the public. And that’s not really possible right now because of the public health restrictions related to COVID-19. There are reporters looking at social media posts, and those posts are now the people on the street. So it makes for an echo chamber–y kind of an election, more insular.
How about Sonia Furstenau, who was just announced as leader of the BC Green Party? Is she going to have a hard time in such a short campaign?
Speed out of the gate is absolutely essential. Hundreds of thousands of BCers are going to be casting their ballot in the next week or two. 400,000 mail-in ballots have already been ordered from Elections BC. You can vote anytime, now till voting day. You’re Sonia Furstenau, you’ve just been elected BC Green Party leader. You haven’t been able to consolidate support within the party—it was a much closer leadership election than people were expecting. You’ve got Andrew Weaver from the outside endorsing Premier Horgan. The challenge before her is getting out quickly with a united party in this election.
JS: Well, if you go back to the Facebook Ad Library, I’m going to give you some numbers. Over the first seven days after the election was called, the BC Liberals spent $33,000 on Facebook ads. By comparison, the NDP spent $22,000. By extreme contrast, the BC Greens only spent $571. And their ads of interest have only started running over the past weekend.
So while the Liberals and NDP came out swinging, the BC Greens have been a little bit slow to catch up. But what interests me about their strategy is that Sonia Furstenau and the Greens are really focusing on other politicians in their election adverting. One ad they have out right now is actually a photo of John Horgan’s face getting onto a campaign bus.
It’s a very interesting advertising strategy for them to use a photo of John Horgan. It’s such a strong photo that I even find myself glossing over the message that comes with the photo. All I see when I gloss over it, I see a picture of John Horgan, I see his name in the copy, I don’t see much about the Greens’ plans or what they intend to do. It seems like they’re really campaigning on the injustice of this election call.
And I’ve never seen anything like this in political adverting, but one of their paid posts that went up last night is talking to the fact that minority parliaments can acutely deliver good outcomes for people because they force governments to be held accountable. And Furstenau has actually screenshot a tweet where she asserts as much; it has a photo of Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh. It’s an interesting election strategy, focusing on the faults of Horgan and the merits of Trudeau and Singh working together to make her case that the election is unfair.
However, what’s Sonia Furstenau’s plan for British Columbia? That seems to be left completely out of consideration here. Again, still early days, but as my colleague rightly pointed out, it’s a little bit frightening for a politician to see people already posting their obligatory “I voted today” selfie with so many ballots expected to be cast early. In short, out of the gate, there’s not a lot of messaging from the BC Greens about their plan. It’s really about fighting the fact we’re in an election.
This interview has been edited for clarity.