Political campaigns make for some interesting studies in communications theory and issues management. Take the case of Trevor Kennerd, former football player and current Conservative candidate for Winnipeg South-Centre (which happens to be my riding).
Twice in the last two weeks, Mr. Kennerd has been ambushed by critics trying to tar him as an extreme social conservative, anti-abortion advocate and homophobe. If he were running in rural Alberta, he might just cheer that kind of characterization, but he’s running in what is probably the safest Liberal (and liberal) riding west of Ontario. It’s Lloyd Axworthy’s old riding; the only riding in Western Canada that remained Liberal in the Mulroney landslide of 1984; and one that’s been held quite comfortably Liberal likely since the Tories hung Louis Riel.
The Conservatives have made Liberal incumbent Anita Neville a target and have flooded the riding with pamphlets for the past two years trying to soften up her support. They recruited the well-known Mr. Kennerd earlier this year and local media were starting to talk about the possibility of an upset.
Then came the first blow. It seems Mr. Kennerd accepted campaign financing from an anti-abortion group. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Mr. Kennerd didn’t answer the charge in the media. He said nothing (as far as I can tell anyway).
Then the next blow (see Gordon Sinclair’s column here). A gay and lesbian group dug up an old letter that Mr. Kennerd and his wife had written to the Winnipeg School Division in 1999 blasting plans to use the classroom to fight discrimination against homosexuals. This time, his campaign responded, but only with a written statement which didn’t deal with the central issue, the accusation of bigotry.
I don’t know what Mr. Kennerd truly believes. That’s not why I’m writing this. From a pure communications perspective, he did himself a great disservice by remaining mum and not responding quickly and directly to the attacks. Instead, he let his opponents and critics position him as a man with views that many in this riding would consider intolerant. By not responding, he missed the opportunity at air time and ink to refute and reposition.
In issues management and branding… you can never let your opponents position you. You have to position yourself. As a marketing guy, he might have followed the examples of the advertising world in this regard. Witness Microsoft’s recent I’m a PC advertising campaign aiming to do just that versus Apple.