Sunday, December 17, 2006

On communications

There's been no lack of talk today about the NDP's internal communications structure, with the focus primarily on Communications Director Brad Lavigne. While I agree that there's a need for a significant shift in how the NDP looks at communications, my suspicion is that any problem has more to do with the party's general view of communications than with Lavigne himself - though there are at least some reasons to think the NDP is taking small steps in the right direction.

I'll start by noting that I agree with seemingly all the posts so far to the extent that the NDP has largely failed to recognize the massive potential of citizen media - and that it of all parties can't afford to miss the boat. That said, it's worth taking a slightly different angle as to just what problems need to be addressed.

First of all, I'd suggest that the NDP's problem doesn't lie in a lack of interest in the potential of the Web. In fact, the NDP made use of some effective viral marketing in the last federal election, and continues to do well at times in the top-down communications department.

What about Northern BC Dipper's concern that the party has simply taken its message in the wrong direction in paying loads of attention to Afghanistan rather than domestic issues? While hindsight is 20/20 on that one, it's worth remembering that at the time the NDP started off on that course, Michael Ignatieff still looked like a heavy favourite to win the Lib leadership, making Afghanistan a potential wedge issue to differentiate the NDP from both the Libs and Cons. In contrast, Ignatieff seemed determined to at least talk a big game on progressive economic issues - making those much less promising as a means of setting the NDP apart.

I'd thus chalk the ultimate result up to an effective Lib counterstrategy in choosing a leader who eliminates that wedge by largely agreeing with the NDP's message. And while that certainly poses problems for the NDP now, it doesn't mean the idea was a bad one to begin with - as the NDP could easily have ended up the sole federal party on the right side of a major election issue.

I thus don't agree that the problem is so much either in a complete aversion to any medium, or in the NDP's choice of issues to highlight. That said, let's look at the problems which clearly do need to be addressed - and Northern BC Dipper does highlight a couple of those.

First, there's Lavigne's apparent attempt to criticize the media in lieu of offering a clear statement himself on the NDP's Afghanistan position. I'd certainly agree that the communications director should have a concise statement of the party's own view ready to go under those circumstances - not a diatribe against the media for failing to get an unstated message. I'm not sure to what extent this is a consistent problem rather than a one-time event, but it's certainly something which any communications director should avoid.

The next issue pointed out by NBCD is the question of the NDP's e-mailing strategy. And while NBCD focuses on the content of the Dion e-mail in particular, I'd think the problem goes much deeper. Rather than putting in an effort to determine who's on the party's mailing list and why (which would allow for messages only to go to those likely to be interested in a particular topic), the NDP currently seems to be using e-mail as a broadcast medium to get as much of its message out to as many people as possible - whether or not the recipient is likely to have any affinity to the particular message, and even where there's a real danger of recipients tuning out based on the number of messages received.

Which hints at what I'd see as the ultimate question. Namely, is the NDP looking to use the Internet (along with other media) solely as a conduit for its mass messages? Or is it interested both in presenting content more personal than press releases, and in seeking input from others beyond the party's inner circle?

If the answer to the first question is "yes", then the NDP is plainly missing out on much of the potential of citizen media. But there have been at least a few steps suggesting that the Dippers are at least willing to adopt some of the language: following Lavigne's apparent dismissal of blogs generally, the NDP at least provided room on its site for a few rudimentary blogs about its own convention, then gave MP Nathan Cullen space for instant coverage of the Lib convention. Which could be particularly noteworthy in that it shows the party isn't limiting its coverage to NDP-friendly events.

The problem, of course, is that those blogs have themselves been both entirely one-way, and not particularly personal. And it won't do the NDP much good to pick up on the word "blog" alone without reaching out to its own blogging supporters, providing a mechanism for interested Canadians to themselves participate in an online discussion, or at the very least making use of blogs to present some relatively unique content rather than simply another iteration of the party's usual message.

The good news is that it's not as if the NDP has to start from nothing: it has a substantial group of bloggers already looking to show its support, and probably many other citizens interested in adding their two cents' worth. And while both the Libs and Cons have perhaps done more in reaching out to bloggers to date, both also still seem to maintain complete isolation on their own respective websites. Which means that it's not too late for the NDP to be a trailblazer in putting together an online community to complement its existing party structure.

But that will require the NDP to recognize that the bonds and interest that are built through a public exchange of ideas are more than worth the inevitable costs (both in the need for moderators, and in the loss of total message control). Which strikes me as the ultimate question surrounding any possible communications director: not merely what message the NDP seeks to put forward at any given moment, but rather whether that person is willing to make sure that communications move in both directions. And if Lavigne or any other future director continues to try to present only a one-way conversation, then it's all too likely that less and less Canadians will be willing to listen.

Update: Of the additional discussion that's taken place, Devin Johnston has probably the best suggestion in proposing that the NDP create a new national position to handle online operations separate from the current communications portfolio.

Another update: Having linked to Devin's original post, as a time saver I'll also link to his correction as to the individuals involved.

(Edit: typo and fixed link.)

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