Header photo by Hamish Grant. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's YouTube Interview

This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a page out of President Barack Obama's blog, and utilized social media to engage with Canadians on a variety of political issues.  Canadians were invited to submit questions via text and video, and then could vote on their favourites.  The Prime Minister answered the top questions on YouTube.

According to the PMO:
"Social media is changing the way Canadians interact with politicians."
"Canadians, especially younger Canadians, are no longer getting their news from just television, radio and print media. They are turning to new media in increasing numbers."

Engage a younger audience using a relevant communications vehicle:  Excellent strategy.

The problem? The video ended up being a 40-minutes long.  To the PM's target audience, it was dull.  Poor execution.

The fact that the questions were crowd-sourced was useful.  Canadians could ask what they wanted frankly and with candour.  The questions were also "social" in nature because the community could vote on their favourite ones.  Excellent strategy. 

The problem? The process wasn't transparent.  You could not see how many votes each question got, nor could we see  a ranking of the top questions.  There was no way of knowing if the questions asked were the top questions voted on. This made the entire process appear controlled and manipulated.  Poor execution.

It seems that the interview missed the mark. If the Prime Minister wanted to utilize social media in an effective way to engage people, then he and his staff should have looked at social media at its best, and how it is being used effectively to generate conversations, build communities, and leverage connectedness.  That would have shown excellent strategy.

Instead, the entire exercise looked used the same, tired format - the fireside chat with a similarly-aged yes-man moderating questions, buffering the PM from the people.  The only difference is that this was presented on YouTube.  Poor execution.

This two-way asymmetrical model of communication fails to leverage the best of social media.  Though pundits and journalists may be calling the exercise a success, as an avid social media user and public relations student in PM Harper's target audience, I was neither fooled nor impressed.

All in all, the strategy was there.  The execution was not.

For more on this, check out the blogs of a few of my colleagues:

Sarah State
Robyn Landau
Kathleen Napier
Kaitlynn Dodge


  1. I definitely agree that Harper needs to understand the importance of two-way symmetrical communication in order to be successful in his role as PM and in social media.
    Great Post!

  2. I think that you hit the nail right on the head with your analysis Zack. I think that in order to achieve increased execution it is necessary for Harper's communications strategists to take these suggestions into about regarding their overall communications tactics. It won't be possible in social media if it's not an objective in general communication.

  3. You make an excellent point about transparency. If the process of selecting questions was more transparent, I think the interview would have had more credibility. And I think you are right in saying that overall the strategy behind the interview was great, but the execution of the interview was poor. The interview had the potential to change the trajectory of communications between politicians and citizens, but unfortunately this attempt by the PMO failed.

  4. I agree with your point about the lack of transparency. This one-way conversation with contrived questions is not the way to engage a new audience.

  5. Robyn - Thanks for the comment. Being more transparent is beneficial. Voters like it. It makes sense to me that it would be part of the political strategy.

    Kaitlynn - The failure on the government's part is in recognizing that using social media is not an end in itself; there needs to be engagement. It is a vehicle.

    Kathleen - The interview had tremendous potential. I wonder if the other parties recognize it and how to do it better!

    Sarah - It seems like regular social media users recognize this; infrequent users of social media don't - they seemed more impressed that the government even tried to venture into social media and YouTube!