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Tory Tactics: The Robocall Crisis

March 12th, 2012

Robocall protestors gathered in cities across Canada yesterday to call for a public inquiry into the election fraud scandal that’s been brewing for weeks. Waving placards and shouting through megaphones, protestors were demanding accountability and a more transparent election process.

Initially, Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t want to deal with the emerging crisis. The tactic was to ignore it…a wait and see strategy…hoping the whole thing would blow over.  It didn’t.  Political debate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa has been dominated by the robocalls controversy.  The Liberals and New Democrats accuse the Conservatives of being behind the calls. While the focus has been on the riding of Guelph, Ontario, the Opposition argues the automated calls sending people to the wrong polling stations occurred in dozens of ridings during the federal election last May.

Critics have labeled Harper and his Tory government both defensive and righteous…claiming that those are the hallmarks of almost every challenge they face.

As the robocall crisis gained momentum, the Tory tactic switched from ignore to deny.  Harper and his senior team categorically denied involvement and said they were victims of “baseless smears”.

When that didn’t seem to work, the Tory tactic shifted again…this time to attack. The Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons and blasted the Liberals saying they were “sore losers” engaged in a “sleaze campaign”. He accused them of using an American call centre to send the fraudulent calls.

The approach backfired. The Tories had their facts wrong.  The U.S. company has the same name as one in Canada, but has nothing to do with Canadian politics.  It’s always wise to do your homework before you engage in finger pointing. Trying to shift the blame is always a risky strategy in any crisis.

Conventional wisdom in crisis communications suggests that you need to acknowledge a crisis quickly, show concern at a senior level and take positive action. That doesn’t mean you admit guilt. From the outset, the Prime Minister could have focused on the government’s willingness to investigate. At the same time, he could have reminded the public that this type of thing is not government policy.

Along with country-wide protests, tens of thousands of people have signed an on-line petition calling for a public inquiry saying the on-going Elections Canada investigation is not enough.  Beyond that, the Council of Canadians is trying to mount a group lawsuit saying “voters were misled, harassed and subjected to dirty tricks”. Whatever the Tory agenda may have been, it has, to some degree, been de-railed by the robocall crisis and the way it has been handled. Communications choices were made and now the fallout continues.

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