Leadership and paying attention: remembering Jack Layton, five years later

Thank you, Jack. (photo of Jack Layton

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of Jack Layton’s death. “Untimely” is a completely inadequate word for his passing. It came too soon in his life and left so little opportunity to savour his historic electoral success. But judging by the outpouring of emotion — yesterday as well as five years ago — Jack’s legacy endures.

I’ll be thinking this week of my friends and colleagues, at NOW and across Canada, who worked closely with Jack over the years. I can’t claim to have really known him, having written speeches for him in one election a dozen years ago. I only ever spent more than a few minutes alone with him once, mid-campaign, on a flight to Whitehorse.

That was enough, though, to leave a powerful impression.

He was briefing me for a speech he’d be giving to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. And while he kept his responsibilities as the leader of a campaigning federal party uppermost, it was clear from the start I was talking to Jack Layton, Municipal Policy Wonk. He cared very deeply about cities and towns as a locus of sustainability and social justice.

Before that, I’d sometimes taken his facility with words to be a matter of skill and polish — and of course Jack was a well-practiced speaker. But in that conversation I realized it was also (and mostly) clarity of thought, combined with passion and conviction. Jack could speak so well because he did something that sounds simple, but that few people in public or private life pull off nearly as well: he fused the heat of his conviction and the depth of his knowledge with intellectual and emotional discipline.

One related thing I remember vividly: how thoroughly he devoted his attention to our conversation. You hear about how some politicians have a gift for making you feel like you’re the only person in the room. With Jack, it wasn’t ingratiation; it felt more like our conversation was the most important thing happening at that moment.

A deep capacity for paying attention: that’s worth looking for in a political leader. But more important, it’s worth nurturing in ourselves.

Thank you for that, Jack.

A safari guide’s guide to communicators

Joanne's SafariYou freeze and cock your head. What is that? The rustle of a press release? The hum of a radio ad being produced? The ground-vibration rumble of a speech being delivered 5 km away?

You turn ver-r-r-y slowly… and catch a glimpse of one of the amazing denizens of the plains and fever tree forests of the communications world.

What fair creature goes there? Use this handy Who’s Who of Communicators to find your colleague’s style… and learn how to nurture their natural talents. Read the rest of this entry »

Unsolicited free advice for leadership hopefuls and New Democrats

A photo of a big yellow arrow followed by a team of little white arrows.

For most Canadians, the season that just started is Summer. But for that band of hardy travellers on the parliamentary road to a better tomorrow — that is, us New Democrats — the season is Leadership.

Nationally and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, our party is seeking new leadership. Choosing a new leader is a pretty big deal in politics. We’re trying to find an effective, inspiring champion for our values and policies… who has the wisdom and strategic smarts to guide a party in opposition and, hopefully, a province or a nation in government… and whose background and leadership style sends a powerful message to Canadians about who and what we stand for.

The NOW team has more than a little experience with this. At a quick rough count, we’ve collectively provided strategic guidance to 21 political party leaders including eight provincial premiers. And while we’ve lost count of the precise number, we’ve worked on more than 50 municipal, provincial and federal elections.

So here’s a little unsolicited, free advice (isn’t that the best kind?) from the NOW team to leadership hopefuls — and to the New Democrats who will choose one of them to lead us into the next election and beyond.

  1. We need a leader who talks more about others than her/himself. Telling voters what drives you to serve can be powerful. But a good leader also listens to others, reflects on what they say and weaves others’ stories into their own.
  2. Look for a leader who doesn’t talk about “rebuilding the party.” It isn’t about the party. It’s about the people who are counting on us to get elected so we can change their lives for the better. So let’s not navel-gaze too much in public.
  3. Let’s elect a leader who understands that the legislature isn’t the centre of the universe. The neighbourhood, my home and my family are the centre of my universe. Too often political types get tied up in knots about the process instead of the outcome. What we do in the legislatures of the nation matters only because of the impact on people’s lives. The best leaders are the ones who can make that connection without getting lost in the weeds of Parliamentary procedure and antics.
  4. Leadership is not only an intellectual exercise. Yes, our new leader should be smart and savvy. But it’s even more important to make an emotional connection – to speak from both the head and the heart about the real issues facing Canadians. Show voters that you care about me and my neighbours.
  5. Don’t tell people to vote for “change.” Instead, give voters a reason to want change, and show how that change will be better, not worse. A lot of Canadians (more than 80 per cent) think that no matter who is in government, our lives will continue just the same as they always were. Don’t just tell them they’re wrong; show them there is another way.

A lot of people say they want the party to be bold. They want to be inspired. I confess I don’t really know what that means. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to agree we want “bold” or “inspirational” than to agree on the ideas behind those words. A bold idea could still be a bad idea. And what inspires one, might not inspire another.

For the voters we need to reach, “inspiration” may well be a lot more about a leader who truly connects with them. Who understands that life for Canadians is getting harder and harder. With too few good jobs, too many burdens and not enough support for the average family.

Good leaders understand my story and thousands like it. They talk more about me than about themselves. They can talk to me about why some things are working and others aren’t, and they can offer clear, credible steps to make it better. They are human, emotional and smart, and they want to build a better world for all of us.

As you flip through the catalogue of potential leadership hopefuls, or if you’re preparing a campaign of your own, keep that emotional connection in mind.

And remember why we want to win. It’s not about victory itself, or grabbing the brass ring. It’s about winning so that we have the power to make life better for the people we want to represent. And the better a leader does at conveying that convincingly, the better our party’s chances for success where it really counts.

Your summer to-do list

Photo of a pier and a sunny beach

AKA What I did on my summer (when everyone else was on) vacation

If you’re in the office there will be days over the summer where the number of email bounce-back notifications will dwarf the number of times your phone rings. At some point you might find yourself getting a bit lonely. At NOW we call this breathing room.

Here are some things you can do to take advantage of the (relative) calm:

  • Make a plan of attacktion – Review your strategic communications plan. And if you don’t have one – write one! Having a plan will help you to hit the ground running with focus when things ramp up in September and shiny objects start threatening to pull everyone off in directions that don’t align with your long-term strategic goals.
  • Refresh your message – And if you don’t have one write one! Write one now! And then share it. It’s not really a message if it stays on your hard drive.
  • Leadership training – Your leaders and spokespeople might have bit more time on their hands as well this summer. This is a good time to start building on their communications skills, or do a few refresher sessions while they’re more relaxed and not consumed with emergencies and meetings.
  • Refresh your online profile – Do an inventory of your website and social media profiles. Do they need a refresh? Are they up-to-date? Could they use some new photos? You can also use this time to generate content for events and special days you know are coming up to have in the can.
  • Plan for campaigns – Review your campaign plans. Do you foresee needing to buy media in the next six months? Then the time is now. Making a paid media plan in advance gets you better bang for your buck with cheaper rates and a better selection.
  • Take stock (photography) – Too often the only photos we have of union leadership involve a megaphone and picket signs. Summer offers a multitude of opportunities to build and refresh your photography library. BBQs, parades, community events are great places to get photos of your leadership and members out in the community. (See NOW’s Tips for Building Your Stock Photography Library).

It’s about more than winning

It's not enough to just say we want to win. We need to spell out why.

Words matter. So in our latest NOW Strategy post, I take a quick minute to examine one of the words we use a lot as campaigners, organizers and communicators: winning.

Do we all want to win? Of course! But the more we talk about “winning”, then the more the work we’re doing becomes a game: one political party or operative outsmarting the other, or about a union winning a tricky battle against an employer. What’s missing? People: the real-life humans we’re working to represent, and the things that concern and affect them every day.

Why we want to win matters. And it needs to be part of what we’re saying.

Read “Remember, it’s about more than winning” here

Take a moment to watch this media coaching trainwreck

Screen capture from Ken Starr interview

We’re pretty religious about media coaching and rehearsal. If you’re a leader who’s going before the cameras, you need to practise, and not just for softball questions. You need to be ready for the toughest stuff a reporter can dish out…and you have to know how you’ll respond to a question you aren’t expecting.

Want to see what happens when you don’t? Witness this trainwreck of an interview with Ken Starr. Read the rest of this entry »

Welcoming our summer students…and building a future for progressive communications

Photo of NOW entrance

School’s out for colleges and universities, and that’s great news for us at NOW — because it means some wonderful, talented young women are joining us for the summer. Welcome aboard, Jebet O’Reilly and Delaney Steel, and welcome back, Kayla Meadows and Christine Logan!

I’ve written a guest post this week on the Function Point blog that describes how we work with our summer students. It’s an approach that differs sharply from the experience that, frankly, too many summer employers offer:

…earning little to no pay fetching coffee, collating photocopies or doing digital drudge work until the wee hours. But this shortchanges both students and agencies.

NOW recognizes our summer students as the next generation of communications professionals: for the unions, governments and political and advocacy organizations that make up our clientele, but also for agencies like ours.

Our summer students are talented, passionate up-and-comers who share our values. So we pay them a living wage, and we ensure they get practical experience in the nuts and bolts of communication.

Have a look at the post, which describes how training our students in the apps we use doesn’t just give them software skills; in the case of Function Point, it actually gives them a picture of how our agency operates and how we do great, strategic work. (Full disclosure: Function Point has generously given us complimentary licenses for our summer students.)

We’re here in Ottawa for the Broadbent Institute Progress Summit!

2016 Progress Summit
Progressive organizers, activists and communicators from across Canada are gathered in Ottawa for the third annual Broadbent Institute Progress Summit. Some of Canada’s most experienced hands at organizing and communicating for political change have come, loaded with plenty of innovative ideas to share.

The Summit comes at a pivotal time for Canadians who support values like strong public services, environmental responsibility, equality and social justice. Big recent wins and promising opportunities go hand in hand with challenges and some worrying trends. Read the rest of this entry »

The right word matters more than ever.

Oxford Dictionaries Twitter banner

Most of the communicators we know are a lot like us when it comes to writing: editing and rewriting and tweaking every sentence, every phrase, every word.

Because words count. The right ones can open people to new ideas and spur them to action; the wrong ones can close minds, weaken support and harden opposition. That’s why we’re so diligent about testing language in the research phase of a campaign. We want to know which words convey both the literal meaning and the persuasive emotion we want them to deliver. It’s why we prepare messages for communicators, and help members and supporters advocate your position as effectively as possible.

Words matter. And it’s kind of jaw-dropping when a dictionary seems to dismiss their importance. Read the rest of this entry »

As memories of Harper slowly fade, Heather Fraser tells us what’s next

Illustration of Harper fading to Trudeau

Our latest NOW Strategy piece comes from the latest member of our team, Heather Fraser. Our newly-minted Director of Research Partnerships and National Projects warns progressive Canadians not to let their warm fuzzies over Justin Trudeau keep them from holding the Liberals’ feet to the fire:

Just “not being Harper” and showing a little human decency is too low a bar. It’s time to set out higher expectations for our federal government. That means we need to be more active than ever and run smart campaigns to pressure the Trudeau Liberals to implement the change they have promised.

And to turn hope into progress, we need to do more than just hold the Liberals to their promises. The Liberal platform was vague, missing important planks and in some places just plain heading in the wrong direction. We need to advance our own agenda.

Read more here!