Leitch successfully using bad publicity to manipulate media: expert

Ramisha Farooq
Inspired by Trump-style politics, federal Conservative party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch called for immigrants to be screened for “Canadian values” earlier this year when announcing her leadership bid. Photo from The Canadian Press.

Conservative Leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s brash campaign tactics and hard-right policy stance are deliberate attempts to knock out her competitors, experts say.

And what may seem like outlandish behaviour may actually be carefully crafted campaign strategy.

A campaign video Leitch released last week that was meant to highlight her controversial immigration policies instead made her the subject of online ridicule, with a slew of awkward stares and unusual editing. But the viral hit and jokes may have played right into her campaign’s hands.

“If she’d done a straight piece of political advocacy, it would’ve disappeared without a trace. So if you think they’re no such thing as bad publicity, she may have succeeded beyond her own expectations,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, a professor of journalism at the University of Toronto.

“Politics in Canada and political communication is getting more and more American in Canada. So It’s possible that this might work as well.”

The conservative MP responded to the popularity of the video a few days later by declaring that it went viral because Canadians support her views.

“And so I’m delighted that now, unfiltered, the Canadian public can see what I’m talking about. And, as I said, the majority of Canadians completely agree with my idea,” she told CBC’s ‘Calgary Eyeopener.’

Experts like Joshua Greenberg, the director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, suggests that Leitch played into the media’s desire for political incivility and outrage politics.

“Television news, and cable news in particular, is increasingly driven by the performance of negative emotion. The more incendiary a candidate’s rhetoric, the more indignant their posturing, the more politicized their argumentation, the higher the ratings will be and the more popular a particular candidate will become.”

He adds that in a crowded field of candidates, ‘unorthodox’ faces like Kellie Leitch depend on publicity for survival.

“The more media attention that a candidate like Kellie Leitch can attract — for her amateur campaign videos, offensive statements about immigration or refugee policies, or disingenuous attacks on the very ‘elite’ establishment from which she comes, the less publicity and attention will be available to other candidates,” Greenberg said.

“Judging by the excessive media attention given not just to the video but to all of our conversations about it, I’d suggest her campaign team will be very pleased.”

Kim Blanchette, the national president for the Canada Public Relations Society, says political attacks, like Leitch’s attacks and persistence on a tougher immigration police, may be a way of demonstrating control of a situation.

“It certainly it responds to some fears people have and when you’re on the attack in any kind of relationship you’re usually the one in control so it can be somebody appear as if they’re in control,” said Blanchette,

Despite her manipulations however, Carleton’s Greenberg doesn’t believe Leitch’s limited stance on policy issues will appeal to Conservative party members voting in the leadership race.

“I don’t believe Leitch has more than a remote chance of winning her party’s leadership,’ Greeberg said. “If we look at empirical data on the policy issues voters say they care about, about broader economic indicators, and if we graft these onto demographic trends in Canada, I don’t see how, even if she becomes Conservative party leader, she will be able to convert that win into electoral success.”

While not referencing Leitch per se, Blanchette echoed that statement citing differences in Canadian and American culture.

“I do think that a Trump could potentially backfire in Canada especially if it moves into the personal, if you’re attacking other people, if you’re calling other people names,’ said Blanchette. “I think though that we have certain values in Canada, certain respect for each other and values of inclusivity.”

Others, like Carleton University professor Scott Edward Bennett, disagree.

“That is what Canadians like to think,” he says, “but compassion and inclusion are part of the gloss of national self-image that does not stand up well in all areas.”

Leitch has drawn controversy since announcing her candidacy when she called for a test for immigrants to see if they aligned with so-called ‘Canadian values’. According to an email recently sent out to subscribers of TheRebel.media, the test may include questions like: “Are men and woman equal?”

She was quickly criticized by opponents and other Conservative party members for targeting Muslim immigrants.

Many have associated her hardline immigration ideas with those of U.S. President Donald Trump, who promised strong immigration reform upon his election and has followed through on implementing a travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries.

As for whether the trend of brash, ‘Trump-style’ political rhetoric will continue Blanchette is unsure.

“These trends ebb and flow and I think we’ve seen other periods where negative narrative really takes hold but we’ve seen periods where positive narrative takes hold,” she said.

“I think you’ve seen politicians that have used a positive narrative and have succeeded. So I don’t know if it’s a here to stay thing. It’s certainly something we’re experiencing not just in north America but around the world we’re seeing negative, fear-based narrative take hold.”

Name recognition also plays a hand in election cycles and may be a driving force in Leitch’s campaign strategy.

“It’s obviously important,” said Blanchette, noting that name recognition may be a factor in voting for certain segments of the population and how they approach elections.

“It worked for Justin Trudeau,” added Dvorkin, who suggests a very American feel to Leitch’s campaign and disdain for the media.

“There’s something Trumpian about this, which is ‘Get out there, get the attention of the media, ignore the fact that it doesn’t fit the normal political narrative and then move on,’ “ said Dvorkin.

“That worked for Donald Trump and might work for Kellie Leitch.”