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Politics Conservatives are revamping media strategy for next election

The Conservative Party is training its new federal candidates to be comfortable talking to the media – a marked departure from the party’s more closed approach in the 2015 election.

The Conservatives' preparations for the fall election included a “victory school” in Ottawa last month that featured media training and mock interviews.

“We have already started training candidates to feel confident and comfortable talking to media,” said Melanie Paradis, who will be in charge of candidate communications.

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“And another key difference is we will have a dedicated team of people whose job it is during the campaign to support candidates in getting more media coverage. So you’ll definitely be seeing more of them,” Ms. Paradis added.

That key difference is a shift from the last federal campaign that saw some reporters grapple with restrictive access to Conservative candidates, especially those running for the first time. And it will also be a departure from a campaign that saw Conservative candidates criticized for skipping out on local debates.

Conservative strategist and vice-chair of Summa Strategies Tim Powers said there was a lot of “blowback” after the last campaign for “disconnect and muzzling.”

Mr. Powers said that sort of evaluation follows every election campaign and that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will not want to have an identical approach to former prime minister Stephen Harper because he doesn’t want to “invite that comparison.”

“One thing that will probably be different – you’ll see more candidates or established MPs saying more. I think they want to sell a bit more of the team,” Mr. Powers said.

Regional players and key candidates will be given more flexibility from the traditional controlling system, he said, but it’s likely too early to say just how much.

“Some of the restrictions in the past around people not going to debates – that can often lose you an election because people have some expectation that you go to these things, so it depends.”

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Conservative candidates can choose to do media interviews and participate in local debates, a party spokesman said, adding that the party wants candidates in their communities talking about “why Canada needs a new government and why our conservative plan is the best way forward.”

Conservative MP James Bezan repeated that message, saying the party wants candidates speaking with reporters and taking part in debates.

This isn’t a change for him, he said, because in 2015 he participated in four debates and gave national and local interviews.

“Directions for the election is to be engaged. That’s why we provided training so they can be confident in discussing our policies,” Mr. Bezan said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Scheer, for his part, has sent mixed messages: Sometimes he thanks journalists at the end of his events, other times he targets them in his speeches.

At a rally in Ottawa in October, Mr. Scheer accused media pundits and academics of being onside with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He said Conservatives “don’t always get the same kind of coverage in the mainstream media that he has.”

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