Unravelled: Doug Ford’s Strange Public and Political Media Strategy

Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a bottle of hand sanitizer as he speaks about small business suppliers during a media availability at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on 28 March 2020.Chris Young / The Canadian Press

If you live in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has been on TV for over a year. Almost every day of the week – rarely on weekends – he appeared on local television news. During this time of the pandemic, his television appearances and press conferences have had a strange trajectory. It was a top-down, zigzagging media strategy that was always going to lead to his recent mea culpa and whining-filled press conference in a backyard in northwest Toronto.

Ford is not a natural on TV. But, looking at him, you suspect he thinks he is. His natural style is combative, dismissive and inflexible. And that led him and his masters down a dire road. Only media strategists who are themselves right-wing populists with a pro-business, anti-union agenda could possibly think that this would work in the long run through human catastrophe.

There was a time in the beginning of it all when Ford’s angry inflexibility suited the occasion. Then it didn’t, mainly because Ford and his communications team stopped focusing on the broader public good and started launching a narrow political agenda that confused the public and was only aimed at a political base. Inflexible became a hypocrite and then a deceiver.

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In March of last year, he was there on TV, enraged by the price hikes when an upscale grocery chain started selling hand wipes, typically costing around $ 8.49, for $ 30. “Nothing infuriates me more than someone taking advantage and raising the prices of the public who desperately need these items,” Ford thundered. He announced that he would pass a law banning scams. The grocery chain backed down and apologized.

It worked as a strategy. It was action, it was strong leadership, and it was helpful. Viewers loved it. Thinking back to the television coverage of this incident now, I note that the CTV News report was by Colin D’Mello, bureau chief at Queen’s Park. Thirteen months later, it was D’Mello who asked Ford: “Prime Minister, do you still have the moral authority to lead this province as Prime Minister?” “

Something has gone terribly wrong. But at first, it was always Ford who nurtured a public image as an action-man leader. He drove his own truck to personally help pick up 90,000 surgical masks that had been donated to the province by a dental supply company. There was no TV footage, but a PC MP had photos and they were used in TV reports. What a great guy, that was the bottom line. Drove his van and rolled up his sleeves to help frontline workers.

There followed a period in which Ford was on TV all the time, standing stiff in a warehouse or healthcare facility, not saying much but watching in charge. He had promised an “iron ring” to protect residents of long-term care homes. In November of last year, he was on TV as the second wave hit those homes. “I will not spare a single penny when it comes to protecting the people of this province, whether it is long term care or anyone else,” he said. declared to the cameras with assertive force. Come the third wave, this statement sounds absurdly hypocritical.

At the end of last year, Ford’s image as “First Dad” was heavily pushed by its managers. In a widely circulated Canadian Press article at the end of the year, someone was quoted as saying, “He became everyone’s ‘first daddy’ and he found that empathy. The person named was Amanda Galbraith, described as “director of public relations firm Navigator and former director of communications for Toronto Mayor John Tory”. As if Galbraith were a selfless observer. Not true. Galbraith was on CP24 recently, described as a “conservative strategist” and, while disagreeing with some specific actions of the Ford government – shutting down outdoor playgrounds and giving police additional powers – her main angle was to attack. the federal government and she even veered into an irrelevant jibe over the federal carbon pricing plan. And in general, as a right-wing expert, Galbraith shares this point of view: “Yes, we rely on medical experts, but we did not elect them. “

Ford’s media strategy took a turn for the worse precisely when he began to ignore medical experts – this is an example of the force of sophisticated media being vaporized – and made explicitly political and ideological decisions. The problem could be seen every night on the local television news. There was Ford or one of his cabinet members talking about schools, hospitals and lockdowns. Within minutes, the same report caused medics to either defy the Ford government’s line outright or to raise their hands in dismay. Images of doctors and hospitals were simply at odds with what Ford was saying, no matter how forcefully he said it. A media strategy was in tatters, undermined by words and images with more moral force than Ford.

Yet he continued with the same blunt attitude. The alleged “First Dad” empathy was swept away by the withered third wave of the pandemic. The only strategy left was a stubborn and uncompromising rejection of the very idea of ​​paid sick leave. We’ve seen a lot in Ontario over the past year and one of the strangest has been the dismantling of a communications plan which, as soon as Ford’s furious inflexibility became a handicap, was always going to end. in tears.

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