Sunday, July 25, 2010

On brand development

Let's double back to Murray Dobbin's questions about what kind of progressive infrastructure we should be working to build in Canada:
Without organizations committed to challenging these enormously powerful forces we are certain to suffer huge setbacks before cultural change begins to reflect itself in the political and economic world.

Does that mean completely new organizations? A huge change in the ones that already exist? Is the answer coalitions of groups that can together come to grips with the fight that is ahead of us? A concerted effort to transform the NDP into a real party of change?
As hinted at in my initial comment, my sense is that Dobbin is actually missing a couple of related elements to a successful movement - which at best might be considered part of the "new" or "huge change" categories, but probably need to be separated out as specific areas for improvement.

The first one - and an odd one for Dobbin to omit in light of the massive amount of attention that's been paid to Fox News North - is the development of far-reaching media outlets as a specific type of organization.

Here, we run into the costs and benefits of the specialization of news and commentary - a trend which may be most easily observed online, but can also be found in traditional formats. On the bright side, it's relatively easy for anybody seeking out progressive news and commentary to find it, whether that be online through media outlets, blogs and advocacy organizations, or through alternative newspapers and radio.

While there's plenty of information available, though, there doesn't seem to have been any effective effort by the Canadian left to develop any consistent mainstream presence - whether by expanding the reach and visibility of a niche outlet to the point where they spread to the wider public consciousness, or by taking over all or some of an existing outlet with a wider audience that can be built up into the go-to source for progressive perspective.

And the latter doesn't necessarily require the "buy a TV station as an ideological loss leader" model followed by the right. Indeed, the example of MSNBC's successful left-leaning shows would suggest that a strong voice can succeed if it's given a chance under corporate ownership.

But that leads into the second element that seems to be sorely lacking: namely, the development of strong individual voices and brands within the progressive movement.
(The irony of writing this on a pseudonymous blog branded with a picture of a gavel is duly noted. Let's just say that I'm working on changing the limitations in my own ability to network through the blog.)

After all, it's the development of popular and recognizable hosts (Maddow and Olbermann) that's allowed MSNBC to flourish as a network identified as having a leftward slant - with a much stronger network of recognizable figures in other formats such as commercial radio and the blogosphere supporting that effort every step of the way. And this looks to me to be where there's the most room for immediate improvement on our side of the border.

However dubious the cast of characters on the right may be, there's no doubt that the Levants, Taylors, Kheiriddens and Steyns of the world serve plenty of useful purposes for the conservative movement. Right-wing commentators have managed to become go-to opinion providers in all kinds of Canadian corporate media outlets (often even while bleating the entire time about how their kind is underrepresented). And the commentators use their personal followings to push all parties to the right and focus attention on conservative issues of choice, while maintaining faces and voices for the movement even as politicians and parties rise and fall.

So who, if anybody, is working to develop similar individual identities from the left?

The most successful brand built in the last 15 years is likely that of Naomi Klein - but with a focus primarily on global issues rather than on Canadian ones. And it's a sharp drop from Klein to anybody else that could be considered a multi-platform face of the Canadian left. Maude Barlow still has ample name recognition left over from the free-trade battles on behalf of the Council of Canadians, but doesn't seem to get a lot of face time in the political mainstream anymore; David Suzuki has a strong personal brand and appears regularly in loads of settings, but obviously identifies more as "environmentalist" than "progressive". And that completes the full list of Canadians who can even arguably be portrayed as combining a household name with a commitment to further progressive political ends (outside of MPs and current party spokespeople who are limited in their ability to push anything to the left).

What's more, nobody seems to be even remotely close to stepping into the breach. Granted, there's a decent supply of (mostly veteran) columnists with a left-wing take including Dobbin himself. But with the exception of Gerald Caplan, none of them have apparently parlayed that into regular TV work. And while Brian Topp and Douglas Bell have managed to make it into the Globe and Mail's stable of bloggers, they're probably another level below the print-only columnists in their name recognition and reach.

So if the corporate media doesn't figure to be the source of progressive personalities, what about younger figures in current advocacy organizations? That's where I'd see the most opportunity for growth - but as best I can tell, progressive organizations in Canada have thus far focused their efforts on building up institutional brands rather than personal ones. Which means that the labour movement and the CCPA may be well recognized as producing strong messages without anybody from their ranks gathering any individual recognition or following, even while their regressive counterparts develop individual personalities as well as a steady stream of content for media consumption.

How about the more-overtly-political group at Rabble? It's probably the closest organization to developing the type of cross-platform concept that I'd most like to see. And in particular, the "Not Rex Murphy" contest is easily the best effort so far to focus on the goal of developing recognizable progressive commentators. But the organization's limited reach has only been highlighted by the fact that Humberto DaSilva's contest win doesn't seem to have built up to any further media exposure beyond Rabble itself.

So there are groups trying to develop individual voices who don't have the capacity to launch those voices into the mainstream. And there are groups with the resources to build individual reputations as part of their mandate to promote progressive policies who have directed their efforts elsewhere. But as far as I can tell, there's effectively no intersection between capacity and mandate to develop and brand the next generation of progressive leaders.

In sum, then, I'd argue that the next step for Canada's progressive movement should be a concerted effort at developing individuals who can serve as the faces of its ideas and opinions to Canadians at large - ideally in the context of structures with enough stability to allow the new activist leaders to dedicate their full efforts to the task. And when those voices start to get heard in widely-dispersed media (whether current outlets or newly-developed ones), that's when we can begin to reverse the rightward ideological drift in Canadian politics.

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