Friday, May 28, 2004

Francophones don’t like Tory Leader’s poutine

Stephen Harper’s brand new Conservatives hit their first major snag of the campaign after just four days. The blow came not from the ruling Liberals, but from francophone groups, who are understandably suspicious of the Reform/Alliance past Mr. Harper and many of his close collaborators.

Harper’s troops swore they wouldn’t get pictured as French-hating bigots this time, so they adopted the tactic of coming out with a strong pro-bilingualism position (although a hollow one) right on the second day of the campaign. “French will be a national priority for me”, said Harper during a campaign event in Quebec.

There, it’s settled. On to something else, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong.

There were enough nuances about “fair” and “sensible” bilingualism in Harper’s statements to make out-of-Quebec francophone groups suspicious, so he kept getting questions about the issue. Cracks in Harper’s message started to appear after 24 hours. Then the party’s Official Languages Critic, Scott Reid (Lanark-Carleton), made the national news after he told a reporter bilingualism should be limited to some areas where francophones are the more numerous. About half a million francophones would stop receiving services in their language from the federal government.

The whole thing forced Harper to sack Reid as Official Languages Critic and to elaborate on his own views on bilingualism. It turns out he too would cut support to smaller francophone communities after all. His earlier statement to make bilingualism a national priority now looks less like a promise than a threat.

PR lessons from all this?

1. If you’re going to boldly face a controversial issue, make sure everyone on your side sticks to the message.

2. If you use a message to hide an ugly truth, absolutely avoid prolonged media exposure.

3. If you screw up, it’s nice to have a sacrificial lamb handy.

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