The Topp memos

The NDP campaign director explains everything


Via Alice Funke, a pair of rather remarkable documents: an early draft and a final draft of Brian Topp’s assessment of the campaign run by the BC NDP in that province’s most recent election.

Mr. Topp, the former campaign director and leadership contender for the federal NDP, was campaign director for the BC NDP and his memos would seem to lay out all the mechanics, considerations and thinking of a modern political campaign—or at least all which Mr. Topp was willing to commit to paper. There are, for instance, three full sentences about the choice of campaign music.

Campaign music should be chosen for thematic and musical purpose. It should be captivating and excite the crowd and it should help tell the story. It could also be changed at specific times to indicate a shift or emphasize something specific about a particular location or issue.

Here’s Mr. Topp on message discipline and media relations.

Delivering a Consistent Message

In focus groups held in the mid-way point of the campaign, our target voters were asked to recall the core campaign messages for the two main parties. Many participants quickly and easily identified that Christy Clark and the BC Liberals’ main message was “jobs” and the “economy.” But when it came time to recall what Adrian Dix and the BC NDP’s message was, no participant could do so. These voters had recalled hearing something from the leader and the party but could not articulate its central overall message. Lessons learned and recommendations for delivering a consistent and penetrating message:

Prepared Speeches and Daily Message

The Leader is the campaign’s most powerful message-delivery vehicle. To succeed, the message delivered over 28 days must be unambiguous, crisp, direct, and repetitive. Christy Clark succeeded by using every opportunity to deliver her message, over and over again in her prepared remarks, in one-on-one interviews and in answering questions from the media.

Despite media claims to have disliked the repetitive nature of Clark’s message, they nevertheless reported it faithfully(and it was therefore digested by the voters). Our Leader’s remarks were almost exclusively extemporaneous and often contained several ideas competing for space. In the absence of a daily message guide, candidates, spokespeople and campaign workers had no guide as to what our story in the campaign was, so there wasn’t one.

In modern campaigns with so many channels for voters to consume information, it is vital that a
consistent message is delivered in all channels. Next time, our Leader should follow a tight, focused, brief, and consistent message through prepared speeches at every opportunity. A daily message guide containing talking points should be reviewed,internalized and repeated every day by the leader, candidates and by all who were working on thecampaign.

Exposure to Media on Tour

A leader’s answers to questions by the media need to be concise and repetitive in order to be clipped, used and thereby heard by the voter. Detailed and wide-ranging answers don’t ensure the message is heard by the intended audience. Communicating like this hands control of the campaign’s message to the media as they get to choose what the message is.

Exposure through tour scrums should be kept to a minimum in order for the Leader’s message of the day to carry though to air and print time. Holding three or four scrums a day ensures that the intended message of the day gets lost in the myriad other things the media want to ask.

The Leader should also resist the temptation to engage in commenting on the strategy of the campaign or predicting what may or may not happen. The Leader should not engage in punditry.

The job of media relations is to help guide and shape the media’s interaction with the Leader in a way that best controls the narrative and the message in the interests of the campaign. This requires considerable discipline and control over the media’s access to the Leader. Ad hoc, one-off interviews — unless they are feature length or in-depth sit down sessions — should be strictly limited. Scrums should be managed with a “chair” to assign questions and a strict limit of the number of questions. TheLeader’s answers should be short and repetitive.

Scrums on the leader’s tour during a campaign should be brief, rare and generally focused on repeating the message of the day.

So that’s how your discourse is properly managed in 2013.

Chantal Hebert sees a future NDP that has more in common with Stephen Harper than Jack Layton. Maybe. This approach to media management is the sort of thing these people would probably understand. But the NDP’s 2011 campaign was not all hugs and smiles. There were, for instance, ads like this and this and this and this and this. And during the federal leaders’ debate, there was this.

In the summation of his earlier draft, Mr. Topp sets out three things the next campaign must do.

We must do a much more effective job of discrediting our opponent, each and every day of the campaign, when most people are paying attention to politics;

We must defeat, or at least fight to a draw, whoever our conservative opponent is on core economic issues; and 

We must offer a campaign than people like; engage with; are inspired by; turn out to participate in; and are motivated to vote for – even after another immersion in our opponent’s darkest arts.

The NDP’s 2011 campaign defies easy comparison—and I didn’t see enough of the BC NDP’s campaign to know how it met or failed to meet this ideas—but this sounds something like that federal effort.


The Topp memos

  1. This is why democracy sucks. The closer you are to it, the stupider it looks.

    • But really the problem is us voters. Clearly, as this crap works, it means that far too many of us lack the attention span to absorb more than the most basic of messages.

      • We oughta fire our asses then eh.

      • If you’re reading an article about the BC NDP’s campaign manager’s self-critique, the problem with you personally is not a lack of engagement. The problem is your fellow citizens. Stop identifying with them.

  2. There are elements of truth in Topp’s observations but overall it smacks of a back room operator that believes leaders are interchangeable parts that need only follow the script they are provided in order to be successful. My assessment is that the most precious asset any leader can have is the ability to project genuineness. Competence & integrity are nice, but if the opposition can successful paint a leader as a phony they are phinished.

    • I agree Stewart, but even further: Topp is one of a very long line of NDP partisans who lives in denial, at least to the extent that he absolutely refuses to entertain the notion of the NDP undergoing any kind of substantive reform. Despite their chronic losing record, in terms of “reform” or “change”, all the BC NDP does between elections is basically reshuffle the deck chairs.
      A big part of the reason they lost this last election in BC was the (quite correct) perception that the BC NDP is the lapdog of organized labour; the (quite correct) perception that the BC NDP is congenitally hostile to business and the private sector; and the (quite correct) perception that the BC NDP has become increasingly hostile to resource extraction industries upon which a fair number of British Columbians depend for a livelihood.
      Just look what happened when Carole James floated the notion of re-examining the NDP’s joined-at-the-hip relationship with organized labour: she got squashed like a bug.

      • Not only that but you have to stick to your principles. The NDP really hurt itself by flip flopping on the carbon tax – hurt itself on the left that is. The bc libs wisely stuck to their commitment on the ctax.
        But when you consider how much Clark and the liberals were damaged goods you realize how monumentally ineffective was the NDP campaign. I never dreamt for a minute that Clark would pull it off. Unless Clark screws up royally ( always a possibility with her) the NDP is done for a decade or more in BC.

  3. its always about who can beat each other the most in politics, its rarely about, what can we do for the citizens of this country ?

  4. Hmm, I’d really prefer to see his detailed breakdown of why and how Mulcair beat him in the NDP leadership race.

    • You clearly have a mean streak within you.

  5. Topp’s manual for political campaigns could easily have been written by/for any one of the major parties. Because, in all cases, their candidates are essentially prefabricated, scripted automatons, programmed to promote a particular brand. The winners are the ones who can most successfully fake authenticity and integrity…in the short run, at least, and that’s the only time frame that matters anymore in politics.

  6. I dunno; I think Chantal is about right. Harper”s the model for success right now. And that is a good reason to despair if he wins in 15. If he wins you can effectively kiss responsible, rational consensus govt of any kind goodbye in this country; everyone who wants to be seen as a winner will simply imitate as best they can. You can already see this with elements of the McGuinty and Clark govts. Why should the ndp be any different?


    • ‘And that is a good reason to despair if he wins in 15.’

      You’re assuming that, if he loses the next election, the guy that replaces him will be any better. That’s a hell of an assumption. ‘Responsible, rational consensus government’ might already be gone. Particularly after reading Brent Rathgeber’s comments a few blog posts back, I’m of the opinion the damage is already done. If the Conservatives’ replacement (whoever that happens to be) can reverse the trend rather than simply hop in and ride that train, wonderful. I wouldn’t bet a hill of beans on it, though.

      • I really meant if he wins his style of politics will be truly cemented in. As Hebert says there is a very real danger the other parties have already internalized Harper’s law – his logic, winning is all, the means you can apologize for or ignore and deny afterward. So, no i’m not making an assumption, i’m just hoping a different approach wins out.
        I do agree the best solution might be a differnt kind of Conservative taking the reins and repudiating Harper’s style. The only guy who might credibly be able to pull that off is Brad Wall. Although i admit i don’t have any evidence for that thought other than a couple of things he has said to criticize the Harper boys.

        • It may be that Harper’s approach is the only way that CAN win these days. We’ll see.

          • In that case we’re fu**ked – seriously, we’ll be a democracy in name only; at least as far as the ability to question the current orthodoxy goes. Empiricism and meaningful content out, messaging and hive mentality mandatory.It’s not as many steps from there to Putinism as we might like to think. Unthinkable in Canada eh!

  7. This “we weren’t nasty enough during the campaign” mantra is an incredibly simplistic conclusion to draw. And of course it’s utterly incapable of proof or disproof, what historians call a counterfactual. But having said that, Topp completely ignores the role of one huge elephant in the room, and that was the whole HST debate and debacle. The people who hated the BC Liberals — and this ranged from the NDP and its fellow travellers all the way over to far-right creatures like Bill Vander Zalm and the BC Conservatives — rode the HST horse for all it was worth. But you can well argue that the anti-HST coalition’s “victory” in the referendum was kind of a classic pyrrhic victory. Yes, they got the HST repealed. But most of these anti-HST activists really saw that as the opening victory which would usher in the ultimate victory, i.e., beating the Liberals in the election. But the problem with that reasoning is that it was total partian reasoning. It ignored the fact that for a lot of ordinary, non-partisan British Columbians, once the HST was history, so was that anti-HST grievance, which had in turn fed a lot of their dissatisfaction with the government. With the HST out of the way, both the NDP and especially the BC Conservatives struggled to find another galvanizing issue. That’s a big reason why the BC Conservative vote melted away, and the NDP ended up trying to score cheap political points by doing a 180 on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline.

  8. I hope this draws attention to the impact of marketing and media on democracy. There’s too little real journalism, and too much media.

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