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Is Trudeau the ultimate image manipulator? Not quite

Patrick Gossage, author of Close to the Charisma, was press secretary to Pierre Trudeau.

Happily, in the elder Trudeau, there was a combination of substance and image. Throwing Frisbees or tossing his kids in the air, diving, giving the finger to journalists at the G7 Summit in Bonn, Germany, or pirouetting at Buckingham Palace constitute a memorable album of a naturally physical leader. And we took advantage of it when we could. We got him in a native canoe on the Amazon during a trip to Brazil and he danced in a caftan in the desert with Saudi oil minister Sheikh Yamani.

This attractive imagery was balanced in the pre-Internet era by weekly news conferences that were well covered and generally made news. Pierre Trudeau was substantive, even professorial, patiently explaining the reasons for his views and policies.

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But his image remained strong. We didn't have to do much – just put him in a different or exotic setting, be with the boys, or in his Mercedes, and let him wear what he wanted to, and he performed often spontaneously. His image was largely under his control. "The camera loves him," a senior CBC cameraman once told me.

The camera loves his son, too. Not just press cameras. The literally millions of cellphone cameras in everyone's pocket. Justin's ease with crowds, his own natural good looks and physicality, his willingness to parade his beautiful wife and great kids, has spawned a flood tide of images in social media that is unprecedented in modern politics.

Questions about image politics focus on authenticity, fear of being manipulated, and image and social media clicks distracting from substance. On authenticity, Julie-Anne Vien of National Public Relations posted a good analysis: "The key in communications is to have an image in line with who we are. In Justin Trudeau's case, this true nature was reflected in his tone, in his way of speaking, in the way he takes the time to look at, listen to and engage with his audience. These indicators are in perfect harmony with the image he projects."

There is little evidence that backroom people carefully stage Justin Trudeau for maximum image impact. It happens, and it is who he is. This authenticity was demonstrated in what many consider to be his entry into the national political consciousness in March, 2012, at the famous boxing match with Patrick Brazeau. In his book Common Ground, Trudeau reveals how carefully he planned his strategy and trained. He wanted a win for the demoralized Liberals, and even in this high-risk situation, he got it. It was him.

Mireille Lalancette, a professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Patricia Cormack, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University, have a different view: "As leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau and his advisers carefully crafted his image by using his fame, family, and personal history to fit the expectations of mass-mediated and entertainment-driven politics."

My experience is that academics and journalists give staff too much credit for "carefully crafted" strategies. It is politics and political communications that have drastically changed, and Justin Trudeau conforms perfectly and effortlessly to these changes. The traditional media know and fear these changes.

Traditional media are weakening, social media and online media strengthening, and the latter feast on image and celebrity. Of course, the Prime Minister's Office counts on new media to counterbalance the traditional skeptical coverage of old media.

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Could this regime achieve the dream of bypassing traditional media to reach the public? Will the PMO be tempted to limit access to traditional media? Probably not. The Prime Minister himself has expressed respect for the Ottawa Press Gallery, and his smart staff realize that they still largely set the agenda for the national political discourse.

The grandfather of image control was U.S. president Ronald Reagan's Michael Deaver. We can thank him for all the staged photo ops and announcements that are central to political playbooks today. He protected Mr. Reagan's image, enhanced by choosing just the right settings, poses and camera angles. But he also steered the president away from reporters when he could, instead arranging the president in settings that conveyed visually the message of the moment. Stephen Harper's PMO followed this strategy to the letter.

The current PMO has not. Mr. Trudeau is regularly available to reporters in short takes, even if his engagement to regular full-dress news conferences has not been fulfilled. He might be wise to. We found out that these events are far less risky than we feared. Justin is far smarter and better briefed than is generally recognized, and has proven he can effectively parry difficult media. Moreover, nobody can deny that the Liberals keep pumping out popular polices and undoing Mr. Harper's unfortunate legacy. He could frame these announcements more thoroughly at news conferences.

Then, together with the ongoing wins in the image and new media department, he can keep doubters, pundits and the Opposition at bay – until, that is, there is really bad news.

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