It began with a whimper, and ended changing the face of Canadian politics. The 2011 Federal Election was as unpredictable as it was exciting, with every poll failing to accurately predict the outcome. While the first two weeks were fairly lackluster – most Canadians, and the media not engaged with the campaigns – the final three weeks proved to be almost surreal.
As the communications director for the Victoria BC Federal Liberal Campaign, and the Liberal Candidate Christopher Causton, we were faced with the challenge of taking on a well liked and respected incumbent, and to ensure voters were engaged with our message, platform and candidate. It’s a communication challenge that requires working on all platforms – media, advertising, mail outs, social media, speeches, debates, interviews, responding to questions…- and accomplishing those tasks within a tight time frame of five weeks.
Working in the field of communications, public relations and marketing it is rare to be involved in any ‘campaign’ that encompasses so many mediums, and which requires the coordination of a volunteer team that can bring in a variety of skills. In fact, political campaigns are intense learning experiences for everyone involved; certainly the skills and experience of professionals are put to the test, while those new to PR and communications can find putting theory to the real world worthwhile.
Which is why one of the lasting memories I will take from the election is working with a dynamic, enthusiastic young team who exceeded their own expectations over the course of five weeks. One team member, Emily Skey, has written of her experience…extracts below.
It was a family friend who mentioned Mat’s name to me one Saturday afternoon over muffins and coffee. She said that Christopher Causton’s communications campaign team was looking for extra help and was I interested. I hesitated because I had never been involved in politics before, despite the fact that yes, I had voted in the past election. As a bored Queen’s BCOM graduate, working in two different restaurants to keep my wallet from drying up, as I wait to get accepted or rejected from law school, I had nothing to lose. I knew I needed something to sink my teeth into and push me outside my comfortable Oak Bay bubble. So I committed myself to the campaign. Well, being involved with Christopher Causton’s liberal campaign communications team turned out to be an amazing experience and a whirlwind of fun. I have to thank Mat over and over again because I was a campaign newbie, a liberal newbie and other than my personal use of face book – a social network newbie.I think the first thing Mat showed me was how to post a blog and attach a video using WordPress. I never thought of myself as a crazy computer wiz, but once you have been around computers for most of your life and don’t go a day without using one at least a handful of times, learning new programs isn’t difficult. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but I found WordPress to be well laid out with self explanatory buttons like “post” “attach a video” and “date of post” – it’s like how could I screw it up? Once I felt savvy with WordPress Mat convinced me to open my own Twitter account and toured me around the tweeting, retweeting, hash tags etc. Again, like WordPress, the ins and outs of this, new to me, online phenomenon were extremely user friendly. I’m still not convinced of the point of personal updates to Twitter, like a friend of mine just tweeted “Baking muffins is way better in the winter, but how come I only start baking in the summer?”. Tweets like that are a waste of time in my books. However, I did get to watch and participate firsthand in tweeting for a Federal Candidate and saw how fast news travels to those on Twitter. I used to think of myself as an up-to-date individual, always reading newspapers and scanning the internet for important worldly updates. But newspapers to Mat (as you all probably agree, a twitter master) is like keeping up to date with last weeks news – a pointless activity.
Once I graduated from Twitter I learned all about Hootsuite. I would not call myself a master of any one of these online social media services; however, this campaign and following Mat wherever I was able to, opened my eyes to the intense use of social media in Victoria. I am now tweeting once every three days or so and trying my best to shop around my twitter daily. I’m sure I should be on it more, but there is always room for improvement right?
In addition to the social media tools that Mat taught me over the past five weeks, I experienced a steep learning curve being a part of my first federal campaign team. The first thing I noticed about the team was that there were about eight other younger volunteers that walked in and out of our Pandora office – everyone else was quite a bit older. As days went by and I attended a few meetings, I realized that my role as the “young face” was refreshing and inspiring for the more experienced volunteers and it was important for them, for me to keep my energy high. There was no argument that they knew more about politics, campaigning and our chances of defeat; therefore, I saw early on that I needed to bring something to the campaign office that helped them complete their tasks easier. I was amazed at what you can do with a smiling face and an “I’ll do anything attitude”. In saying that, the next lesson I learned was how to say no.
Volunteering with the candidate’s communications coordinator, I spent a lot of time with Christopher. He surprised me a few times when it was just the two of us attending an event and he would ask “So Emily, what do you think I should say?” The first time this happened we were at Saint Michaels University School with Elisabeth May, speaking to fifty staff and faculty. I was thrown off a bit, but quickly put myself back in high school (really wasn’t too hard as it was only five years ago) and tried to think about what was important to me and what would keep me interested in a federal election. We decided that university tuition and an explanation of his choice to not use signs on public property were good topics to start with. After attending this event, I always made sure that I was one step ahead of Christopher, having a few topic ideas and opinions at the top of my mind in case he asked.
Christopher was a wonderful candidate to volunteer for. He struck me as, and I don’t believe I have ever described anyone like this, a wonderful citizen. I remember on election day we were walking up Cook Street and he moved a stray grocery cart from the middle of the sidewalk out of the way closer to where it belonged. I asked him if he felt that he had to do those sort of things, being mayor, but he responded with something similar to “Emily, if you are a better person you will only inspire and make those around you better – in hopes that sooner or later everyone in your community is doing their very best to make a better community”. There was just no way I could argue that. Christopher wants to make every community better and he will start doing so with his own actions. My respect for Christopher and idealization of how he lives his life and carries out his career grew during those kind of moments.
Volunteering for this campaign was an amazing experience and I am very happy to have found such an opportunity. Not only was I introduced to a number of people in this city I wouldn’t have met or worked with, but it helped me scratch the surface of some professional tools that will help me with my own career. Most importantly it placed me in a safe but uncomfortable situation, pushing me outside my comfort zone where I was forced to stay engaged, listen and learn. I hope to continue my volunteer work with Mat and look forward to some possible hours volunteering at Social Media Camp in early June. Emily Skey
Video – Emily Interviewing Christopher Causton