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Trudeau’s atypical media exposure pushed by ‘most image-conscious PMO in Canadian history’

By Laura Ryckewaert      

'We're very focused on reaching Canadians through a variety of different mediums,' says PMO's Kate Purchase.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has graced international magazine covers, including Rolling Stone and Sky magazine, and was pictured with his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau in the pages of Vogue. It's all part of the government's image-conscious media strategy. Mr. Trudeau's cover feature for Sky magazine, for example, was aimed at promoting Canadian business, says Ian Capstick. Photographs courtesy of Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Delta Airline's Twitter
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From Rolling Stone magazine to CBS Sports, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a point of engaging beyond the usual media suspects covering Canadian politics, and it’s all part of a media strategy of what is considered the most image-conscious, communications-driven Prime Minister’s Office ever, say strategists.

“The Prime Minister’s Office has an innate understanding of how media and various mediums compliment, or perhaps don’t compliment, the prime minister,” said Ian Capstick, founder of MediaStyle and a former NDP press secretary.

“If we take a look at the list of outlets the prime minister seems to favour, seems to give a little bit more exclusive access to, they tend to be outlets that are well viewed in urban centres, they tend to be outlets and publications that perhaps cause other media to write about them,” Mr. Capstick said.

He added: “This is the most image-conscious Prime Minister’s Office in Canadian history.”

In June 2016, for example, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) did an exclusive, in-person interview with the Daily Xtra, an LGBTQ-focused online publication, in what was likely a first, noted Mr. Capstick. It was aimed to reinforcing “a narrative that they have been very strong at putting forward,” he said, one of a prime minister who’s “open and transparent and collaborative,” and who—despite not having had a formal apology for historic persecutions of the LGBTQ community in time for that year’s Pride celebrations—is “still marching with you.”

The government has announced a formal apology will come before the end of this year.

Engaging “individual constituencies” on their ground is “critical” to the PMO’s approach to communications, said Mr. Capstick.

“There’s a reason the prime minister likes town halls,” he said. “There’s a reason the prime minister will do interviews that could be seen as a little bit tougher, for instance, because part of the Trudeau brand, part of the Trudeau magic, is to be seen as open, transparent, and able to take on criticism when it’s warranted.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to media in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

To be sure, Mr. Trudeau does the typical sit-down interviews—at year’s end, end of session, or otherwise—with outlets regularly covering Canadian federal politics, like CBC, CTV, Global News, the Canadian Press, The Huffington Post, APTN, Bloomberg, Maclean’s, The Toronto Star, and more. He’s used the National Press Theatre in Ottawa 10 times since becoming prime minister two years ago. Stephen Harper held seven press conferences at the NPT in the 10 years he was in power.

But he’s also engaged with media outlets, or particular shows, beyond the usual suspects, including exclusive interviews with CTV’s Breakfast Television, W5, CBC’s Metro Morning, CP24, P.E.I.’s The Guardian, and numerous interviews with local radio programs across the country, like Atlantic radio’s News 95.7 on the Sheldon MacLeod Show. He’s taken on unique interview circumstances, from taking part in a CBC special where he was interviewed by 10 chosen Canadians, to town hall talks with Huffington Post and Vice News, to taking a Vice News crew with him to exclusively cover a visit to Shoal Lake 40 in June 2016.

Internationally, he’s also talked to The New York Times, CBS’ 60 Minutes, CBS Sports, Rolling Stone magazine, Germany’s Der Spiegel, CNN, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Live with Kelly and Ryan, and Vanity Fair. He posed with his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau for a Vogue magazine cover feature, and for Sky, Delta Air Lines’ inflight magazine. Mr. Trudeau has talked to Lonely Planet for an online article and Cottage Life magazine.

He also recently took part in The West Wing Weekly podcast, a show that discusses the TV series about the U.S. presidency, The West Wing, which ended in 2006. This podcast is hosted by an actor from that show, Joshua Malina.

“All of the various interviews are an attempt to show him in the continuous light of being accessible, in contrast to Stephen Harper,” said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and host of his own show on VOCM Radio.

Mr. Powers said along with the PM being comfortable engaging with media, Mr. Trudeau’s interviews with “so-called glamour magazines” are about “image inflation internationally” and building political power.

“Often Canadians will respond to seeing other magazines in other places that elevate our leader, we’ll take a sense of pride in that, it will make us feel like we are a player on the world stage because our leader seems to be so well regarded, or at least is earning positive press,” said Mr. Powers, adding positive international coverage also helps if “peer nations take a particular view.”

But such international coverage is not without risk domestically, in that it gets seen as “all sizzle and no steak,” said Mr. Powers, which is why he thinks the PM in turn does a lot of local media, town halls, and the like to “engage that criticism.”

Mr. Capstick said, as seen with Mr. Trudeau’s comments to Rolling Stone about Ind. Quebec Senator Patrick Brazeau, such engagement risks becoming “a point of negative interest within the Canadian media, and particularly the Canadian political intelligentsia.”

Mr. Capstick said this PMO has also shown as tendency to use communications to tackle problems. For example, he cited the prime minister’s January tweet about all refugees being welcome in Canada, something that at the time earned him accolades but today has been blamed by some for an influx some cities are struggling to cope with. While it solved “surface level tensions” at the time, Mr. Capstick said a policy-driven rather than a communications fix could have solved the “underlying” issues.

“There’s a lot of people in the world of lobbying and in the world of public affairs that quite rightly suggest that if you can make something a communications problem for the existing federal government, it most certainly becomes then an obsession and something that the government wants to respond to,” he said.

Mr. Harper developed a reputation over his tenure as being relatively closed-off to the Parliamentary Press Gallery and was noted for taking strict control over how, and how much, he engaged.

But Mr. Powers noted that Mr. Harper also spent time “working different media strands,” such as reaching out to ethnic media organizations across the country or talking hockey with Sports Illustrated.

“[Mr. Trudeau has] continued that and tried to be even more diverse and hit more communities and recognize that there’s no one specific gathering place for Canadians anymore, and when you’re driving certain messages, you’ve got to go to different places,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau speaks to Hill media outside the Senate Chamber in Centre Block, accompanied by Canada’s next governor general Julie Payette. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

While there’s plenty that’s different about how Mr. Trudeau engages with media as prime minister compared Mr. Harper, it’s not entirely new. The prime minister will still limit questions at press conferences, both on the Hill and while travelling.

Just as the Harper government was described as being selective in which media to engage with, and when, so to does the Trudeau government—albeit, more frequently and in different ways.

Mr. Powers noted Mr. Harper also did much to communicate directly with Canadians, like his PMO-produced weekly video roundup 24 Seven.

“Trudeau seems to be doing both direct-to-market and using the filter [of media] because he figures he can get some value from the filter. So he’s different in that regard, but I think each of them has a formula that they applied based on where they think their strengths and weaknesses are,” he said.

In an emailed response to a request from The Hill Times to discuss the PMO’s media strategy, communications director Kate Purchase said: “We’re very focused on reaching Canadians through a variety of different mediums, and that includes a wide variety of news sources and outlets.”

“Canadians aren’t getting their news from just one source anymore, and often it’s a mix of kinds of outlets. We want to talk to Canadians in every part of the country, and that permeates our approach to social media, to physical events, to the kinds of media outlets we engage with,” she said.

The Trudeau government’s engagement with media has also extended beyond the prime minister himself, as notably in the case of a recent profile of his chief of staff Katie Telford in Chatelaine magazine, for which the publication was granted unique access.

A profile like that “shows that the prime minister lives the brand, and that brand is empowering good leaders regardless of gender,” said Mr. Powers.

It establishes Mr. Trudeau as progressive, highlights a capable working mother at the top levels of government, and helps build connections with an audience the Liberals are after, “younger voters, millennials, some gen Xers,” he said.

Mr. Capstick said this PMO sees “each and every one of the political actors within the prime minister’s sphere as being critical to how the narrative is being put forward,” from his principal secretary Gerald Butts engaging on Twitter, to Ms. Telford being profiled in a magazine. By comparison, the Harper PMO stuck to old adage that staffers stay behind the scenes.

“These are conscious communications choices,” he said. “It’s not dissimilar to when Madame Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau goes out and chooses a specific charity or decides to give a speech at an event, or reaches out on a particular policy issue.”

Elizabeth Gray-Smith, a senior content strategist with Bluesky Strategy Group, said she thinks the Trudeau government is “definitely more media savvy” than the previous one, and “appreciates the media’s role in democracy” and are using their strengths to leverage it.

“They’re smart about it. They’re not pitching stories or accepting interviews just because. They look at numbers. They know who they’re reaching. … Everything is calculated,” she said.

Ms. Gray-Smith, a Liberal, said the Trudeau government’s media strategy is to “engage with media again,” and using a “Storifyed approach” to showcase the government’s policies.

“I really believe it’s the most connected government that we’ve seen. They’re using these stories to then pump the progressive movement through all channels where the voters are, and they’re on Facebook, they’re on Twitter, they’re on Instagram, you name it. These stories are then moving along and it gives them just more traction,” she said.

“They’re not just profiles on Trudeau the man. These stories are about what he believes in and the policies he’s passionate about. So to get people talking everywhere, not just in the States, but around the globe, it benefits us in moving it forward internationally.”

Based on recent feedback from her American cousins, Ms. Gray-Smith said the Rolling Stone profile, for example, has bolstered progressives south of the border, and can benefit Canadians by building support for policies that impact us all.

“We can’t just talk about climate change just here, because climate change affects everyone,” she said.

Mr. Capstick noted there’s also plenty of “cause and effect” in the way in which the Trudeau government engages.

“Again, that’s part of the strategy that the director of communications [Kate Purchase] and the entire team in the Prime Minister’s Office are putting forward. They are choosing these particular media interviews because then that provokes other media articles about them, including this one,” said Mr. Capstick.

“For him to go on The West Wing podcast … it’s not really about the listeners of that particular podcast, but it’s actually much more about the media that he’s going to receive in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, for doing that,” he said.

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