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Hill Life & People

Parsing a brand-centric approach to power

By Alex Marland      

Leading up to the announcement of the winner of the Donner Prize for best public policy book by a Canadian, The Hill Times is excerpting finalists’ work. The winner will be announced May 15 in Toronto and receive $50,000.

'To understand Canadian public sector elites’ communications behaviour in the 21st century is to understand branding,' writes Donner Prize finalist Alex Marland, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Handout photograph
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We lack a focused study of how political communications work in Ottawa. We need a theory for why they create a contagion of pulling everything toward “the centre”—a term with so many different and sinister connotations that in this book it refers to a transcendental concept, usually encapsulating the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Privy Council Office (PCO). We do not understand the requisite components of media management and political marketing, including the use of “symbols and brands to convey a positive image of the prime minister and the government.” The processes of government communications and the relationship of those processes with executive power beg attention. In particular, we need to comprehend the role of senior partisans and mandarins in the congelation of messaging. We must understand the extent of orderly control over information disclosed to the Canadian public.

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, by Alex Marland, UBC Press, 528 pp., $39.95 (hardcover).

An underappreciated reason for power gravitating toward the leadership circle of government and political parties is how elites are responding to disruptive communications technology. The growth of digital media is speeding up the news cycle as the number of platforms and voices increases. Informed and ill-informed critics subject the government to a relentless barrage of questioning in an atmosphere in which public officials are presumed guilty. Public administration operates in an environment “more congested, complex, turbulent, intense, unpredictable, and risky” than ever before. The changes have been so profound that they are characterized as digital media shock (see Chapter 3). A consequence of this technological revolution and abundance of open sources is the emergence of intense information control and image management techniques.

A brand-centric approach to power involves the strategic unification of words and visuals. At the most basic level, a branding philosophy holds that communicating disjointed messages in a haphazard style is less likely to resonate with intended audiences. Conversely, core information repeatedly communicated in an uncomplicated, consistent, and efficient way to targeted subgroups is more likely to secure support for the sender’s agenda. Branding strategy positions the sender as unique, reassures audiences, and communicates aspirational, value-based, and credible messages. Repetitiveness and symmetry are crafted to pierce the clamour. A “less is more” approach to communication reinforces information and messages and does so in a resource-efficient manner that accentuates visual imagery.

Branding balances the information demands of the impassioned and the uninterested. It communicates cues and signals to distracted audiences while stoking emotional connections with those who are most loyal. It involves marketers maximizing their communications investments by promoting messages designed to differentiate the brand and to resonate on an emotional level with target audiences. It understates or ignores the brand’s flaws. It turns a humdrum interaction into a memorable experience. The resulting brand loyalty felt by the most ardent supporters is such that they can be impervious to missteps and to courting by competitors. An organization requires tenacious leadership to assert branding objectives over the demands and criticisms of other actors. The more fractured that media become, the more that party strategists and senior public servants seek to standardize and centralize their messages. The more that message cohesion, discipline, and centralization are practised, the more that society makes political choices based on images of politicians rather than on policy details. In politics, the brand unifies everything. The rest of us need to look at political leaders, party politics, the media, and public administration through a branding lens to understand this.

This book’s theory of public sector branding follows American media scholar John Zaller’s contention that political battles are waged primarily through media management. It accepts his premise that “the form and content of media politics are largely determined by the disparate interests of politicians, journalists, and citizens as each group jostles to get what it wants out of politics and the political communication that makes politics possible.” This jostling is responsive to a fragmented media landscape and to audiences with shortening attention spans. It also accepts American political scientist Samuel Popkin’s concluding remark in his seminal study of political communications: “Ask not for more sobriety and piety from citizens, for they are voters, not judges; offer them instead cues and signals which connect their world with the world of politics.” Or, as Zaller puts it, those who follow politics and government must recognize that most citizens do not wish to invest much energy in monitoring political events. The general public’s overriding messages to elites are “Don’t waste my time!” and “Tell me only what I really need to know!” The likes of Zaller and Popkin recognize that we live in a society in which visuals can dramatically reinforce or shift public opinion and public policy.

In Canada, for all the attention paid to political communications, and to the concentration of power in the centre of government, there is no comprehensive resource that interprets both through a branding lens. Canadianists write about communications control by the executive branch. They pay heed to the message uniformity that pervades the legislative branch through party discipline. They touch on the consistencies between the brands of the governing party and the government. Canadian political parties and first ministers are treated as brands, as are Canadian cities. Some scholars look at Canada’s international image and at the branding of public policy. Public sector advertising attracts much more interest, absent of branding theory. The idea that communications play a formative role in the centralization of political power has not yet been explained as a branding phenomenon. The relationship between branding strategy and technological change is also poorly understood.

An overarching research objective for Brand Command is to consider the digital communications environment for political parties, public administration, and journalism at the federal level of politics in Canada…To understand Canadian public sector elites’ communications behaviour in the 21st century is to understand branding. How the media treat the political class, and how politicians treat each other, have implications for Canadian democratic government. Alarmism about the centralization of power and communications deserves to be balanced with an empirical attempt to recognize the circumstances and institutional factors that motivate elites’ actions. There are concerns about the challenges facing professional political journalism and the implications for a healthy democratic society. The withholding of information leads interest groups to issue open letters calling for reduced micromanagement of government hypothesis that describes citizen disengagement. It is only by attempting to uncover the alleged justifications for political actors’ attempts to control communications that we can arrive at pragmatic remedies. Brand Command submits that the reasons increasingly centre on the supremacy of the brand in an accelerating media environment.

Alex Marland is an associate professor of political science and an associate dean of arts at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has worked in the communications division of a federal government department, held a public opinion analysis position with a major polling firm, and been employed as a research manager with public relations and advertising agencies. He later held director of communications positions with several departments in the government of Newfoundland and Labrador public service. This text was excerpted with permission from Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control by Alex Marland, 2016, UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

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