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Canadian lobbying goes digital

By Peter Mazereeuw      

From ‘astroturf’ campaigns and Facebook games, social activism apps and websites that bombard politicians’ voicemail inboxes overnight, the internet is revolutionizing democratic communications in surprising ways.

Facebook lets advertisers pick and choose demographics and locations with precision, and send their message out through a platform with millions of active users every day. The whole process is automated; advertisers can design and launch their Facebook ad campaign without ever speaking to a Facebook employee. Photograph courtesy of the White House by Lawrence Jackson
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For 150 years, Canada’s political parties have worked to secure power and influence—one voter at a time. Now, lobbyists and digital marketing gurus are getting in on the action. The explosion of social media and digital accessibility has revolutionized the way both politicians and interest groups can recruit potential voters to their cause, and experts for hire are helping them to do it.

These web specialists dissect the wealth of demographic data gathered and made available to advertisers by digital platforms like Facebook, compare it to vulnerable ridings across the country and go to work; using targeted ads, they send tailored pitches to voters they think they can enlist to their client’s cause, and begin to build a bloc of supporters.

Michael Edwards, 30, is one of them. He leads the digital division of the Ottawa lobby shop Sussex Strategy Group; his division is named “Adrenaline,” after the company—his company—that Sussex acquired last year to shore-up its digital advocacy offerings.

Michael Edwards leads the digital division of Sussex Strategy Group. P&I photograph by Peter Mazereeuw

Edwards founded Adrenaline in 2014 while he was running the digital side of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s campaign to unseat the Liberals in a provincial election. Through Adrenaline and now Sussex, Edwards has helped to design digital campaigns for groups like the Canadian Medical Association and Dairy Farmers of Canada, which aim to influence government policy on files like health and international trade, among others.

The CMA, which is running an ongoing campaign for the creation of a national seniors strategy, isn’t shy about showing off the success of their efforts. A graphic on the DemandAPlan.ca website says the campaign has more than 50,000 supporters who have sent almost 100,000 letters to MPs and ministers on the issue.

The CMA took the campaign for a test-drive in byelections prior to the 2015 general election, urging supporters in those ridings to raise it with the candidates. It ran the campaign “loud and proud” in the national contest that brought the Liberals to power, said Kristin Smith, the CMA’s director of patient and public engagement.

The campaign continues, and is building towards the next general election, says Edwards.

The longevity of the CMA campaign is what digital marketers like Edwards hope for.

Unlike previous “astroturf ” digital campaigns—a manufactured movement that appears to be grass roots activism— the thousands of form-letters sent in by CMA supporters are a useful byproduct of the campaign, but not its sole purpose.

Like political parties, the most ambitious digital lobbying campaigns are trying to build real, long-term constituencies for their issue—groups of voters who will talk about it, spread the word, and think about it while they are filling-out their ballots.

In the CMA’s case, they may not have to. The government committed earlier this month to tasking an advisory council with studying how to implement a national seniors strategy. That followed on the passage in May of a motion in the House calling for such a strategy by Liberal MP Marc Serré (Nickel Belt, Ont.).

Serré had connected with the CMA after they discovered a mutual interest in the issue, and the CMA promoted his efforts to their supporters, prompting more letters of support to flow to MPs and the government.

Moving up the ladder

Edwards worked his way into the digital marketing world after he left university during his final year of study to volunteer on the 2010 Toronto mayoral campaign of businessman Rocco Rossi, who would eventually drop out of the contest that gave Rob Ford his first term in office.

Edwards handled social media and digital design for the campaign, building websites and working with online advertisers, including Aber Group, a digital advertising firm that would hire him after the Rossi campaign ended.

A former political science student, Edwards says digital design and technology had been a passion of his before he started on the Rossi team.

“What I really kind of loved about politics and campaigning is, it’s largely a meritocracy. The more you put in, the quicker you can kind of move up the ladder, take on bigger projects, get more involved with the campaign, get more involved with the strategy,” he tells P&I.

After eight months at Aber Group, Edwards moved to Toronto communications firm Navigator, where he built a five-person team to work solely on the digital side of communications. In 2013, he took the reins of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s digital team, overseeing the content, advertising plan, and the website.

His job was to maximize the bang the party could get for every buck it devoted to digital marketing by finding the most responsive audiences, and decide which ads would be the most effective at reaching them.

The party’s digital audience grew, but it failed to win government after then-leader Tim Hudak ran on a platform that included cutting 100,000 jobs from the public sector, which some pundits argued drew negative attention to his campaign, instead of putting it on the incumbent Liberals.

Edwards had already left Navigator to form Adrenaline months earlier, while working on the campaign.

This is how it’s done

The first step of building a digital lobbying campaign is to figure out who can be won over most easily to the lobbyist’s cause. That begins by conjuring “archetypes” of different types of potential supporters—for example, a seniors strategy could interest people nearing retirement, people who are currently retired, and people caring for older relatives—and looking for any special circumstances that could make the issue more or less relevant to those people in certain parts of the country.

The next step is to examine the political landscape, find ridings that were closely contested in the last election, and focus the campaign on reaching the people who fit into the target archetypes in those districts, putting pressure on political parties in places where they will be sensitive.

Digital marketers help to design different ads to appeal to the different archetypes. Often, they will design different website landing pages for each group as well, so anyone who clicks on an ad will be taken to a webpage on the issue geared specifically to how it affects or interests them. It’s not uncommon for campaigns to create hundreds of landing pages for a single issue, taking into account different target groups, as well as all of the different search terms voters or consumers could use to find it.

Next, they bring their research and ad material to web platforms that track the activity of their users and put it up for sale to advertisers. Interest groups can buy search ads, which put a link
to their ad or website as the top search result for people who search certain terms, or ads on mobile applications.

Social media platforms give advertisers even more power to target specific people depending on their interests, demographics, and location, and right now Facebook is the best of the bunch, say lobbyists and digital marketers. Facebook lets advertisers pick and choose demographics and locations with precision, and send their message out through a platform with millions of active users every day. The whole process is automated; advertisers can design and launch their Facebook ad campaign without ever speaking to a Facebook employee.

Ex-PMO staff branch out

Digital and social media gurus are becoming more common in lobbying and public relations shops in Canada. Most firms now offer some sort of social media communications service, though some have more technical expertise than others.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada advertises work it did helping the Public Health Agency of Canada to boost its Facebook following and launch a YouTube channel.

Navigator, Edwards’ old firm, employs Joseph Lavoie to help guide its digital marketing work.

Lavoie has a history of putting his skills to use in the political realm; he managed the digital side of the 2011 Ontario Progressive Conservative pre-election campaign, including the creation of a Facebook game designed to get couch-bound “slacktivists” pounding the pavement as PC door-knockers, or at least spreading the party gospel. Players were assigned tasks, starting with something as simple as “liking” a PC Facebook page, and increasing in difficulty up to door knocking or volunteering for a candidate. They earned points and badges, and competed against each other for bragging rights.

Lavoie also worked in the Stephen Harper PMO as director of strategic communications up until summer 2015, and for then-foreign minister John Baird before that. As a former public office holder, he is under a five-year ban from lobbying, and he says he currently only works on campaigns for corporate clients who aren’t trying to change government policy.

Lavoie says he takes a “political approach,” advising corporate clients to try to build up their own database of advocates among the general public, who can lend support if and when necessary.

One of his former colleagues in PMO communications, Farhaan Ladhani, has taken a different path post-election, building a tech startup, Perennial, which aims to make it easier for members of the public to build social movements through their digital devices.

His partner in Perennial is Ben Rowswell, who works a day job as Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela. The two worked together in 2010-2011 on a project that connected Egyptian pro-democracy activists with tech wizards in Silicon Valley, and then in 2012-2013 on the federal government’s Direct Diplomacy project, an encrypted, online forum where citizens in Iran could talk with each other and Canadian diplomatic agents without being watched by Iranian authorities.

Perennial is currently rolling out an application called Udara, which allows users to join advocacy campaigns and compete to accomplish tasks and earn points, a more sophisticated take on the concept behind Lavoie’s Facebook game for the Ontario PCs. The application matches participants’ skills and interests to causes and campaign tasks to ensure they feel engaged and useful, and are making a tangible contribution.

Lobbying watchdog takes notice

The growth in digital lobbying campaigns has the attention of Canada’s lobbying commissioner, Karen Shepherd, who is responsible for keeping the industry’s activities in plain sight of the public.

Last summer, Shepherd issued an interpretive bulletin to lobbyists and the public, making clear that, as far as she was concerned, Canada’s Lobbying Act applied to grassroots communications as well, and that “paid lobbyists involved in grassroots communication campaigns may be required to register even if their activities do not include direct communication with public offce holders.”

The bulletin lists social media tools and websites under its definition of grassroots communications, specifically naming Facebook and Twitter.

The Canadian Medical Association is registered to lobby the federal government for a national seniors strategy, though Edwards and Sussex Strategy—which handles the technical side of the campaign—are not.

Edwards said it still wasn’t clear howthe lobbying act applied to the work that he does for clients like the CMA, which doesn’t involve traditional government relations or communicating with public offce holders. He said more thought should be devoted to whether building support for an issue among members of the public ought to be classified in the same way as a lobbyist walking into a government office to say, “this is what we want.”

Obama campaign paved the way

The use of digital marketing in Canadian lobbying, politics, and advocacy is only a shadow of the work being done south of the border. Many in the field point to the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign as the point where the practice came into its own; the campaign used Facebook and other social media platforms to spread its message and raise small amounts of money from an unprecedented number of donors.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign included a massive social media component as well, with reports of a budget in the tens-of-millions each month, and an aggressive effort to deliver negative ads about opponent Hillary Clinton to black voters—thought to be a key constituency for her—through Facebook and Instagram.

That election, in turn, spurred a group of unlikely lobbyists to bring the power to the people.

Ben Koren—a former financial analyst-turned founder of an online photo framing company—and Todd O’Brien—the technology director for online eyeglass retailer Warby Parker—joined forces to help found LobbyForMe, a digital tool that makes it easier for activists to start and spread effective advocacy campaigns.

The two men were dispirited by the outcome of the 2016 campaign, and a feeling that many in the United States felt their government only represented those with money, Koren told P&I. They interviewed Congressional aides—Koren says he has years of experience volunteering for the Democratic Party—and found an unexploited niche in digital lobbying: voicemail.

Koren says that aides told them that receiving emailed form letters and petitions is an unremarkable event in a Congressional office, but being swamped with calls can get elected officials worried.

The pair designed LobbyForMe to record voice messages from people participating in advocacy campaigns that are registered through the website, and, based on the participant’s postal codes, match those messages to the corresponding Congressional representative.

LobbyForMe autodials the politician’s office at night, and plays the recorded message as a voicemail when no one picks up. The goal is to have aides come in the next morning to find the office voicemail box full of personal messages, all unique, calling for action on the same subject.

The website for the digital advocacy group quotes Thomas Jefferson when he said “government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” It goes on to say that LobbyForMe helps to “give the people a greater voice in our democracy.”

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