The federal Conservatives are turning to a communications firm with a history of working on political campaigns at the provincial level, as the party looks to target voters with its message ahead of an election.
The Conservatives, who are leading in a number of public opinion polls, have shifted into campaign mode, including the use of data-driven social media content. In his online presence, Leader Pierre Poilievre has placed great emphasis on cost-of-living issues, including inflation, food costs and housing prices.
Behind the scenes, the party has sought professional advice on rolling out this material, hiring communications firm Mash Strategy. The decision speaks to the party’s level of preparation for an election and how it is trying to connect with voters, even though a vote is not imminent, owing to a working agreement between the governing Liberals and the New Democrats.
According to a detailed contract expenditures report from the first quarter – April through June – the Conservative national caucus research office was billed $23,000 ($11,500 for each of April and May) by Mash Strategy Inc.
On its website, Mash Strategy bills itself as a “full-service brand management and marketing agency” that leverages a variety of mediums to “execute landslide victories.”
The company has also been hired by the New Brunswick government of Premier Blaine Higgs. The province is going to the polls next October.
Dominic Cardy, an independent member of the New Brunswick Legislature and the interim leader of the new national Canadian Future Party, said companies such as Mash play a key role in politics.
He said Mash has done work for police forces, non-profits and other organizations, “but they have also got connections to right-wing politics in Canada.”
He said the company would write strategy notes about how to best communicate a message and develop material to distribute it online, TV or radio ads. The company would work with pollsters and research groups to see how the resulting data meshes with what the party would like to do, he added.
“The dangers are that the more you allow a company to take over all of the communications tasks associated with communications, public communications from a government’s perspective or parties, you are ceding, somewhat, the control over that message by definition, and that can mean you are starting to outsource the way a party appears to a third party,” he said.
Mash Strategy was also used by the United Conservative Party during the recent Alberta election campaign. Leader Danielle Smith’s face appears on the company’s website under the heading “People We’ve Helped.”
After Heather Stefanson won the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leadership in 2021, Mash also posted on Facebook that it was proud to have played a small part in helping Ms. Stefanson become “Manitoba’s next Premier, and the province’s first female Premier.”
Two main players at Mash, Derek Robinson and Paul Taillon, have a history of working on Conservative campaigns.
According to biographies on the company’s website, Mr. Robinson, the CEO, was the chief of digital strategy for former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall. He was involved in the Buffalo Project, a group that wanted, among other things, to see Alberta and Saskatchewan have more autonomy.
He was also part of the Canada Growth Council, a third-party advertising group that rolled out billboards with images and messages critical of Liberal MPs and Justin Trudeau. In Saskatchewan in 2019, they featured long-time Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who told CBC the ads amounted to “political carpet-bombing.”
A biography of Mr. Taillon, Mash’s chief strategy officer, said he was involved in political communications for Mr. Wall, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and former Alberta premier Jason Kenney as director of digital strategy. He was the digital lead on the 2020 Saskatchewan Party campaign, his biography added.
Sebastian Skamski, the director of media relations at the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition, did not respond to a request for comment on Mash Strategy’s work for the federal Conservatives. A request for comment sent to Mash Strategy also went unanswered.
Dennis Matthews, a principal at strategic communications firm Enterprise Canada who worked as a senior advertising adviser to then-prime minister Stephen Harper, said the team around Mr. Poilievre has been able to turn him “into a star in his own right.”
“Now we’re seeing that online audience translate into people at rallies and supporters in the polls,” Mr. Matthews said, adding that Mr. Poilievre is building an audience that can be activated and motivated in the months and years ahead.
Alex Marland, who holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Trust and Political Leadership at Acadia University, said Mr. Trudeau was successfully using social media in 2014 and 2015, just as Mr. Poilievre is doing now.
In the past, he said, opposition politicians had to work harder to get attention. Now they can turn to social media. Prof. Marland said Mr. Poilievre is using long-form content online, rather than short posts, such as a video in which he is eating an apple while being interviewed by a B.C. journalist.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Heather Stefanson won the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leadership in 2021, rather than a general election in 2021.