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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to announces the completion of work on Canada Place in Vancouver on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to announces the completion of work on Canada Place in Vancouver on Feb 21, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pollster Panel

Is Harper's PR blitz sound strategy or a wasteful 'gravy train'? Add to ...

Stephen Harper's Conservatives have mounted a one-day public relations blitz, putting more than 80 ministers, MPs and senators Thursday to work across the country talking up their economic recovery plans.

This strategy is being condemned by Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals as showing disrespect for taxpayer dollars. Some reports note the Tories have announced or re-announced nearly $300-million in projects in the past few days.

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Borrowing a winning slogan from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Liberal finance critic Scott Brison condemned the Tory blitz on Twitter: "It's time to stop the Harper Conservatives gravy train and show some respect for taxpayers. Cons are spending tax dollars like monopoly money."

In an email to The Globe, the Nova Scotia MP added: "Not even their record $56-billion deficit can slow Conservative spending. Their cross-country vote buying tour is mortgaging Canada's future."

Regardless, the Tories are handing out good news from coast to coast while the Liberals and NDP have scheduled press conferences in Ottawa to criticize International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda over allegations she misled a Commons committee.

The contrast is stark. Even partisan pollsters from both sides agree this is a good strategy for the Harper government.

Liberal Party pollster Michael Marzolini argued this "local messaging on local spending" from the Tories will dispel any view that the Prime Minister's solutions to the recession are simply all "business friendly, and not in the interests of the average Canadian family."

In addition, the Pollara chairman said the idea that Stephen Harper is a "one-man show" will be put to rest by the appearance of his MPs all over the country.

Dimitri Pantazopoulos, the Praxicus Public Strategies pollster who has worked for the Harper government, agrees, saying the blitz demonstrates "bench strength by showcasing ministers as part of the team."

"This will give them increased profile during an election," he said, noting that "with the threat of an election looming, the government appears to reinforce the message that it has made a difference in communities across the country."

More than that, however, Mr. Pantazopoulos noted the PR push shows that ministers and MPs are still working even though the House is not sitting. And it allows the Conservatives to reach several audiences at once.

"This strategy could allow the national media to focus on the macro-level story - that the government made multiple announcements today as part of its economic action plan - while giving a local angle in a dozen of communities."

Ipsos Reid CEO Darrell Bricker, meanwhile, suggested the strategy is also aimed at reminding voters - in target ridings and big media markets - that a vote for the Conservatives "brings certain benefits."

"The benefits could be government grants or projects, or they could be certain policies that draw a clear contrast between the government and their opponents."

As government, the Tories have certain advantages over their opponents, including the ability to generate both paid and earned media.

On the former, Mr. Bricker noted the Conservatives have effectively "carpet bombed Michael Ignatieff with negative ads."

As for the latter, the government can be assured of media coverage when they mount these one-day blitzes. "Earned media is whatever 'on message' information you get into the news," he said.

"And when you're the government, for the most part, you create the news. Journalists follow the Prime Minister wherever he goes. They also follow his ministers whenever and wherever they have something to announce."

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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