The Strategy Interview

Allan McGirrDirector of Communications, The Reform PartyAllan McGirr became the Reform Party's director of communications May 1. Active in politics for some time, McGirr was a stockbroker in Hamilton for 14 years before moving to Reform's Calgary headquarters this year. He...

Allan McGirr

Director of Communications, The Reform Party

Allan McGirr became the Reform Party’s director of communications May 1. Active in politics for some time, McGirr was a stockbroker in Hamilton for 14 years before moving to Reform’s Calgary headquarters this year. He was a press secretary to two Liberal cabinet ministers in Ottawa, and in 1979 worked as an ‘advance man’ for Pierre Trudeau.

Q. Was your advertising a group effort, such as it was with the Liberals with their Red Leaf group, or was it the work of a couple of individuals?

A. It was a group effort. It was basically all done internally through the communications group of the Reform Party.

Reform’s experience with agencies in the past has not been all that successful, so we were very careful to develop all the creative in-house; we had an agency help us just for the final production, but all the creative was done here in-house.

Q. What media vehicles did you use?

A. If there was one place where we put 90% of our advertising effort, it was in door-to-door literature. It was all produced here in-house, and then distributed to doors via the candidates across the country.

And we had in circulation upwards of 20 million pieces of literature by the end of the campaign. That’s where we really heavied up on all of our effort and all of our budget.

Q. Was that in keeping, to a certain extent, with the party’s political philosophy?

A. Absolutely in keeping with the party’s political philosophy.

The party believes in getting across the substance of our platform. We’re far more concerned about that than the image and the peripheral things that perhaps other parties, other politicians, sometimes get wrapped up in. So the best place to get across the substance is through written materials.

Q. How would you rate the media’s coverage of the campaign? Was it good, bad or indifferent?

A. Media, overall? I think the media did as good a job as you might expect. I’ve made this point before. So many people were looking for the Canadian campaign to fall along the u.s. lines of last year.

The u.s. campaign last year was very much distinguished by the presidential candidates trying to speak directly to the people through talk shows, primarily television talk shows like Larry King [Live] and Phil Donahue and Oprah [Winfrey,] etc.

If anyone expected they could do that here in Canada, they were kidding themselves. We don’t have any programs where you can speak through directly to the people and reach the same kind of numbers that you can in the United States.

The reality continues to be that you have to continue to get your message across primarily through the media.

Q. The Reform Party suffered some cheap shots during the election. (An Ontario teachers’ union briefly ran an ad depicting Preston Manning in a Ku Klux Klan robe.) Did you just press on regardless or did you have a strategy to counter it?

A. Our basic strategy was to stick to our message, to stick to our plan, and continue to trust the Canadian people to know what’s right and wrong and that was our most important defence.

Unfortunately, we still have several groups out there that continue to take these very cheap shots, but it’s part of the price of being in public life.

Our best defence is letting the Canadian people see them for what they are, and continuing to get across our message in a manner that people can distinguish between what is really Preston Manning and the Reform Party and what are the myths and lies that these other groups tend to focus on.

We had an ad that we had developed – we never put it in the can – that would try and counter some of the mudslinging.

It just simply showed a person having the mud being thrown at them and in the end a hose comes along and we say, ‘The good thing about mud, though, is it washes off.’ We never used it; we never bothered.

We had done some conceptual thinking. We had the concept on a storyboard. We never produced it. One, because we didn’t have the time; two, because we’d rather not spend the money; three, because, in the end, it really didn’t matter.

Q. Is there something you have spotted where you can now say we could have improved here, we could have improved there?

A. We would have loved to have had more time, more resources, more people. The very small group that we did have producing this huge amount of literature could have had some of the stress and pressure taken off them. But other than that we’re pretty happy with the end result.

Q. What did you gain from the campaign? What is the thing that sticks out most?

A. It’s not so much a revelation. Canadians were still very angry and frustrated about the polity of their political leadership. They were looking for a positive outlet to channel that.

Reform’s success is dependent upon the people’s ability to associate a vote for Reform is a vote for doing something positive about their anger and frustration.

Q. Could you give a Canadian marketer with a new product to sell any advice based on what you learned during the past six or seven weeks about Canadians’ habits, Canadians’ views?

A. I think the first lesson is you should trust the people. Give people useful information that they can evaluate for themselves.

One of the most important watchwords in both politics and in marketing, in my view, is empowerment. People want to have a choice, and they want to be able to make a free choice for themselves.

You’ve got to present them with choices, and you have to allow them to feel like if they do something, it will have an effect. The important thing the Reform Party demonstrated, I think, is that principle.