The media can't seem to help itself these days.
One of the more frustrating morning rituals I can think of is scanning the headlines of my go-to sites for politics and international news.
For example, just this week, instead of seeing widespread coverage of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto declaring his desire to usher in a North American Union as a response to the Brexit vote -- a startling development that happened while he was visiting Justin Trudeau in Ottawa -- our media was universally more interested in garnering clicks through non-stories like Justin Trudeau going for a jog, or Trudeau being immortalized by Marvel comics.
It's been this way for a while now, a consistent strategy of exposing the bona fides of our prime minister, and the media is all too willing to prop up the government's number one weapon; Trudeau's personal image. The press is aiding and abetting the PMO's strategy of image first, substance second, to the point that we can't seem to go a few days without seeing our country's leader in that all too common, casual photo op, reassuring Canadians that he is unlike his predecessor, Stephen Harper.
Harper and Trudeau are seen as opposites, but at the end of the day they both have a singular priority...
We get it. Trudeau and Harper are different. Only, they do have one huge leadership component in common; both men have taken an element of public relations and used it as their main mechanism to influence public perception. In fact, both men have staked out their preferred piece of PR and taken it to heights previously unknown in the stale world of federal politics.
For Harper, a disciplined communications strategy meant he centralized and controlled all government talking points. His government mastered the dark art of spin, utilizing boilerplate responses ad nauseam and never revealing the specifics about a policy until they were months into a file. Nobody seemed able to penetrate Harper's ability to shield his government from the prying eyes of the press, and the press became hamstrung, almost completely impotent at doing their jobs due to stonewalling tactics and outright hostility. Harper chose the damage control aspect of public relations, even when there was no scandal, and they executed this strategy with near perfect efficiency.
Meanwhile, Trudeau's homage to PR revolves almost entirely around his personal brand. Make no mistake, the campaign never really stopped, and Trudeau has capitalized on his ability to distract the media by training at a boxing gym, going for a jog, providing nerdy sound bites and cracking jokes, all with the idea of enhancing his public image rather than informing the public on important policy matters.
Harper and Trudeau are seen as opposites, but at the end of the day they both have a singular priority -- Canadians need not be bothered with the fine print of how they govern or the policies they put forth.
They even share the exact same controversies. The easiest example is the current court battle between the Trudeau government and injured veterans who are fighting for lifelong pensions. This was originally brought to court by the Harper government, and was roundly criticized by Trudeau and the Liberals when they were the third placed party. Harper, according to the Liberals, was betraying our men and women in uniform by dragging out a court case when everyone knew they should just receive their pensions.
The problem with employing a heavy public relations strategy in politics is that eventually even your average, every day people start to notice.
But now Trudeau's government is fighting the veterans in court. This is more than just a flip-flop; this is an ideological about-face, one with serious implications on the trustworthiness of Trudeau and his cabinet.
But hey, it's going to be all right, don't you worry. While you try to not think about injured veterans, here's another shirtless photo of Trudeau. Feel better?
Another glaring contradiction, one that would have made most of Trudeau's fan base incensed with anger if it were any other politician, is the Saudi arms deal. It doesn't take much of an imagination to picture most Trudeau supporters labelling Stephen Harper a neoconservative warmonger for allowing this deal to happen. It's actually difficult to imagine Trudeau loyalists not vehemently criticizing any other politician for announcing his feminist bona fides while selling heavy weaponry to a regime known for using the same weapons against their own people, half of which are treated as second-class citizens simply because they are women.
But hey, have you checked out Trudeau in a boxing ring. He's SO dreamy!
The problem with employing a heavy public relations strategy in politics is that eventually even your average, every day people start to notice. After all, PR is mostly about telling lies, spinning the truth or deflecting from the topic at hand. Strategists inside the PMO understand that if they send out Trudeau to jog around the block a lot of citizens will waste their time on that, instead of thinking about why young people are still being saddled with criminal records for possessing small amounts of pot.
Trudeau is going to the celebrity well too often these days, and while his numbers remain high, nobody sustains popularity forever, especially if their popularity relies so heavily on image. Worse, Trudeau has a classic hypocrisy issue to deal with, given his self-proclaimed qualities of being open and transparent and brandishing a new way of doing politics. People are beginning to notice that the onslaught of photo ops are directly contradicting the idea of transparency, each handsome photo working to blur the core of the issues rather than enhance the public's understanding of them.
Trudeau has a lot of political capital right now, and it's easy to see why his brain trust is so keen on keeping him on magazine covers and Most Popular web lists. But even if his numbers remain high, he promised us an open government. He promised us details, which includes the kinds of details that make his government look less than perfect.
Until he delivers on his promise of being the most transparent government in Canada's history, we need him to give us less personal brand, and more personal responsibility. Until then, we definitely need less public relations, but he will only do that if he truly wants to relate to the public.
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