Sunday, August 23, 2015

On messaging tests

Following up on yesterday's post, I'll make clear that nobody should hold any illusions that the NDP's opponents will abandon their own efforts to pursue seats simply because the NDP holds a strong position for the moment. And on that front, Bob Hepburn floats a few trial balloons as to messages which the NDP's opponents may try to use against it.

It's certainly worth discussing and being prepared for the attacks we're most likely to see. But while Hepburn merely labels a laundry list of possible messages as "weak spots" without any critical evaluation of their effectiveness, the likelihood that somebody will try to use a particular theme is a radically different question from whether they'll succeed.

For now, let's discuss some of the factors which we should take into account in making that assessment - to be followed in a later post by an evaluation of Hepburn's mooted messages.

Precedent: There's a reason why the Cons' attacks on Lib leaders have regularly started years before the next federal election campaign. People (and particularly those not making a concerted effort to follow a subject) tend to remember negative messages while eventually forgetting the identity of the messenger - meaning that a message will likely have a far greater effect if it can draw on some pre-existing theme. In addition, precedents can also tell us something else about the actual resonance of a particular message: if a message has managed or failed to achieve its intended purpose before, that offers an important indication as to whether it's likely to succeed if tried again.

Relationship to Salient Issues: Any new attack on the NDP will have to be made in the context of the political scene as it stands now. We have plenty of polling as to what voters are concerned with at the moment - and while a party can certainly try to shift the public's attention, it will face a more difficult task if it has to first change the subject before making its pitch.

Credibility: As I note above, over a longer time frame people tend to forget the source of negative messages. But that doesn't hold true in the short term - and in distributing a message widely for the first time during a campaign, a party would take a grave risk in ignoring the likelihood that its own credibility on an issue will be challenged. (To be clear, this category can include both accuracy and plausibility - it obviously includes the question of whether a statement is factually wrong, but also whether the message is likely to be believed in light of its source.)

Likely Responses: Just as we can't assume anybody will give the NDP a free pass, nor can anybody launching a new attack pretend that the NDP's experienced campaign team won't have some replies at the ready. And one can't assess the strength of one without taking the other into account.

Spillover Effects: Finally, a line of criticism may have radically different effects on different voter pools, and may also influence views of different parties beyond the intended target. While a message is likely to raise questions within a particular group, it surely can't be labeled a success if it does anywhere near as much to crystallize the NDP's support elsewhere or to help its ultimate strategic interests.

Obviously there are plenty of other factors which can be taken into account. But I'll apply this test to Hepburn's list of supposed weaknesses to start with - and it's worth keeping it in mind as new themes are introduced throughout the campaign.

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