Quiet cancellation another Tory comms strategy misfire

By all accounts, the folks running the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba know, in politics, optics are everything.

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Opinion

By all accounts, the folks running the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba know, in politics, optics are everything.

If you want to win an election and unseat a government, you need to look and sound the part. The same goes for governing parties that want to remain in power.

Yet, despite possessing that knowledge, the PC party made an abrupt decision to cancel a Nov. 18 fundraising dinner (featuring Premier Heather Stefanson) without adequate explanation.

No formal announcement was made. The Canadian Press did, however, uncover the delay and published a brief story containing an even briefer explanation from a PC spokeswoman saying “scheduling conflicts with party members and community events” necessitated the move.

No further information was forthcoming.

The lack of detailed and plausible explanation allowed imaginations to run wild. Suddenly, political observers were summoning images of a party sinking faster than global stock markets, unable to organize a simple fundraising dinner, let alone ready itself for a critical electoral showdown in 2023.

Perhaps ticket sales were embarrassingly slow? Perhaps Stefanson was afraid to face party donors and members after being unable to engineer a turnaround in opinion poll results showing the Tories badly trailing the NDP?

MATT GOERZEN / THE BRANDON SUN FILES

The PC party made an abrupt decision to cancel a Nov. 18 fundraising dinner without adequate explanation.

It doesn’t help the PC party had already postponed its annual general meeting in September, the largest yearly gathering of members and elected officials. The Tories had cancelled their previous two AGMs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to cancel a third carried with it the stink of fear and desperation.

Is the party struggling to perform even the simplest of organizational duties or running from its members, afraid of exposing its leader in an open forum?

Brent Pooles, president of the PC party, offered an alternate explanation.

A veteran Tory organizer and fundraiser, Pooles said there is no hidden drama or dysfunction behind the decision to delay the fundraising dinner or the AGM. However, he agreed the way the party handled messaging created the opening for unflattering conclusions.

“There’s really nothing to this,” Pooles said in an interview. “We’re very organized and getting things done. But when we started to see all the things that were lining up for the same weekend, it became clear we needed to stand down.”

“We’re very organized and getting things done. But when we started to see all the things that were lining up for the same weekend, it became clear we needed to stand down.”–Brent Pooles

The leader’s dinner was planned well before the fall and, clearly, there was a lack of consideration of other events taking place that same weekend, Pooles said, including the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association AGM — featuring Stefanson as the keynote speaker — and gala dinner.

Pooles noted the MHCA gathering is a big networking event on the Tory calendar. So is the Manitoba Trucking Association fall awards gala, on Nov. 18.

And then, there is the small matter of the Grey Cup.

Although there’s no guarantee the defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be there, PC organizers should have realized scheduling a fundraising dinner two days before the CFL title game — held this year in Regina — would be an enormous conflict.

Finally, add in a Kirkfield Park byelection, which must be held by Dec. 13. That means the writ could be dropped any day, creating additional work for party staff and volunteers, Pooles noted.

“Fundraising dinners are good, but the message we’re putting out to everyone right now is that the party is focused on making sure the premier and the MLAs get re-elected,” he said. “To do that, we all have to be on the same team, pulling in the same direction.”

“Fundraising dinners are good, but the message we’re putting out to everyone right now is that the party is focused on making sure the premier and the MLAs get re-elected.”–Brent Pooles

As for allegations the premier is playing hide-and-seek, Pooles noted Stefanson appeared at a spring fundraising dinner that drew more than 800 people, so it would be unfair to accuse her of being afraid of playing the big room.

However, in addition to being better at reading an events calendar, Pooles acknowledged the party needs to do a much better job of explaining its decisions. Oddly, that’s a task the PC government also needs to undertake.

It’s impossible to ignore the parallel between the failed communications strategy on the leader’s dinner and the missteps being made on a daily basis by the government.

In power seven years now, the Tories have essentially retreated to a “less-information-the-better” strategy: discourage anyone from asking for information or interviews with ministers or key bureaucrats; delay any responses you cannot avoid; and disorient the people asking the questions with vague, incomplete or factually challenged answers.

How is that working for the Tories? Stefanson continues to be the least-popular first minister in the country, and her party continues to lag well behind the NDP in opinion polls.

One can only wonder why, with no clear sign a minimalist communications strategy is working, the Tories would insist on saying less. Particularly when this story serves as evidence saying more saves them a world of trouble.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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