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#ONelxn2022 Series: Media & Elections: You Can’t Have One Without the Other

Published on
May 3, 2022

Authored by: Colleen Ryan

The media and elections have gone hand-in-hand in Canada for more than a hundred years, dating back at least as far as Confederation. How we consume media and where we get our information has dramatically changed in that time. Even so, what we now call “traditional media” or “mainstream media” continues to shape and influence elections – and the 2022 Ontario election will be no different in that respect.

Voters have traditionally relied on media to keep them up to speed on everything from who’s running in their riding and what the top issues are, to when and where they need to cast their ballot. Candidates and parties rely on the media to share their platforms and raise their profiles in key ridings. It’s why we see journalists on campaign buses and at every pit stop on the campaign trail. The media’s role as a watchdog continues to be an indispensable element of our democratic society, although one can easily argue the media has increasingly moved from neutral observer to providing a certain perspective.

How will the media influence this year’s election? For example, of the major parties, only the NDP is doing the traditional media bus trailing the party leader. While other parties are still informing the media of their activities, looking for broad coverage, this dynamic could lead to greater coverage of policy issues or regional imperatives, rather than a focus on the leader and the campaign trail.

Some may recall the 2018 Ontario election and early part of the Ford Government mandate saw some innovation in this space with the advent of Ontario News Now, an online ‘news’ channel created by the Ford campaign in response to concerns about how the media covered the campaign and policy promises.

Ontario News Now was billed as an “unfiltered” source of information delivered directly to voters, bypassing the media.  Ironically, this political-party-created platform ultimately became a content driver for mainstream media who were, willingly or not, forced to follow Ontario News Now to get the latest updates on Ford’s campaign.

While there’s no sign (yet) of an Ontario News Now revival, we can already see how media reporting, and lack thereof, is shaping the 2022 election even before the writ drops.

Last week the NDP released its platform, and the PCs issued their 2022 Budget, which will ultimately serve as a campaign platform. Both documents contained numerous and significant policy proposals that will impact Ontario and Ontarians for many years to come. Yet, the majority of the media coverage focused on the spending promises in these plans, with little space devoted to serious consideration or critique of what was proposed and the extent to which it addresses real imperatives for the province.

Media also shape what issues voters care about by what they report and how much they cover any given topic. In the 24/7 media landscape where outlets continually compete for eyeballs, the more controversial issues make the cut and can change by the day, even the hour. For some organizations, this is an advantage. It creates opportunities to draw attention to and garner commitments from parties on issues of interest. Labour unions and membership associations are prime examples of how this comes into play as they seek promises of increased funding or solutions to ongoing points of contention. For other organizations, a misstep on a key election issue amid the campaign can put them unexpectedly under the spotlight.

Monitoring mainstream and social media should be part of any organization’s election and post-election toolbox.  It’s more than just knowing what’s in the news - it’s about making sure you’re informed about what’s relevant to your business and ready to respond as needed over the next four weeks (and beyond). Media monitoring can also help you map out your post-election engagement strategy for newly or re-elected leaders.

Remember, those voters are also consumers, ratepayers, and community stakeholders. The media’s influence on how they might vote can equate to how they buy, support, and/or engage with you well after the election. In the world of public affairs, understanding what issues journalists are focused on in the early days of a campaign – for example, healthcare, affordable housing, transit, clean energy, getting to net-zero or others - and which candidates and ridings are getting the greatest attention can help determine whether your company should try to lie low or stand out over the next few weeks. Similarly, being aware of how issues are evolving or what issues are emerging as election day approaches can be equally critical in deciding if and how your organization’s communications strategy changes.

We all know media influence doesn’t end on election day. Rather, it is a continual cycle, as the media work to hold the elected government accountable until the next election. And the cycle begins anew.

Happy to Help.

Please do not hesitate to contact your Sussex consultant should you have any questions.

Colleen Ryan, Vice President and Communications Practice Lead
cryan@sussex-strategy.com

Fraser Lockerbie, Vice President, Digital
flockerbie@sussexadrenaline.com