If you live in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has been ubiquitous on TV for more than a year. Almost every weekday – rarely on weekends – he’s been part of the local newscasts. During this pandemic period, his TV appearances and news conferences have had a strange trajectory. It’s been an up-and-down, zigzagging media strategy that was always going to lead to his recent blubbering, blustering mea culpa-filled news conference from a backyard in northwestern Toronto.
Ford is not a natural on TV. But, watching him, you suspect he thinks he is. His natural mode is combative, dismissive and inflexible. And that has led him and his handlers down a disastrous road. Only media strategists who are themselves right-wing populists with a pro-business, anti-union agenda could possibly think it was ever going to work long-term through a human catastrophe.
There was a time, at the start of all this, when Ford’s angry inflexibility fit the occasion. Then it didn’t, mainly because Ford and his communications team ceased to focus on the broad public good and began spinning a narrow political agenda that confounded the public and was aimed at a political base only. Inflexible became insincere and then deceitful.
In March of last year, there he was on TV, enraged by price-gouging when a high-end grocery chain began selling hand wipes, usually costing about $8.49, for $30. “Nothing gets me more furious than someone taking advantage and price-gouging the public that are in desperate need of these items,” Ford thundered. He announced he would enact legislation to outlaw the gouging. The grocery chain backed off and apologized.
That worked as strategy. It was action, it was forceful leadership and it was helpful. TV viewers loved it. Looking back on TV coverage of that incident now, I note the CTV News report was by Colin D’Mello, Queen’s Park bureau chief. Thirteen months later it was D’Mello who asked Ford, “Premier, do you still have the moral authority to lead this province as Premier?”
Something went terribly awry. But at first it was still Ford nurturing a public image as action-man leadership guy. He drove his own truck to personally help pick up 90,000 surgical masks that had been donated to the province by a dental supply company. There was no TV footage but a PC MPP had photos and they were used in TV reports. What a great guy, was the gist. Drove his pickup and rolled up his sleeves to help front-line workers.
There followed a period in which Ford was on TV all the time, standing stiffly in some warehouse or health facility, not saying a lot but looking in charge. He’d promised an “iron ring” to protect residents of long-term care homes. In November of last year, he was on TV as the second wave hit those homes. “I will spare not a single penny when it comes to protecting the people of this province, no matter whether it’s long-term care or anyone else,” he told the cameras with assertive force. Come the third wave, that statement looks absurdly insincere.
By the end of last year, Ford’s image as “Premier Dad” was pushed hard by his handlers. In a widely circulated year-end Canadian Press story, someone was quoted saying, “He became ‘Premier Dad’ to everybody and he found that empathy.” The person quoted was Amanda Galbraith, described as “a principal at public relations firm Navigator and former communications director for Toronto Mayor John Tory.” As though Galbraith were a disinterested observer. Not true. Galbraith was on CP24 recently, described as a “Conservative strategist” and, while disagreeing with some specific action by the Ford government – closing outdoor playgrounds and giving police extra powers – her main angle was to attack the federal government and she even veered to an irrelevant jibe about the federal carbon-pricing plan. And in general, as a right-wing pundit Galbraith takes this view: “Yes we rely on medical experts, but we didn’t elect them.”
Ford’s media strategy went awry precisely when he began to ignore medical experts – that’s an example of media-savvy strength vaporizing – and made explicitly political and ideological decisions. The problem could be seen every night on the local TV news. There was Ford or one of his cabinet members talking about schools, hospitals and lockdowns. Within minutes the same news report had doctors either outright challenging the Ford government line or throwing up their hands in dismay. Footage of doctors and hospitals was simply at odds with what Ford was saying, no matter how forcefully he said it. A media strategy was in tatters, undermined by words and images with more moral force than Ford.
Still, he continued with the same brusque attitude. The alleged empathy of “Premier Dad” was blown away by the withering third wave in the pandemic. All that was left as strategy was a stubborn and hard-hearted rejection of the very idea of paid sick leave. We’ve seen many things in Ontario this past year and among the most bizarre has been the unravelling of a communications plan that, as soon as Ford’s angry inflexibility became a liability, was always going to end in tears.
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