Global Dialogue Conference
November 3, 2005
It is a great honour to be here tonight, in front of so many remarkable people. From my perspective, you do God’s work. You are in the miracle business.
For me, it was a miracle that I was able to step onto the CN Tower elevator and come up here. I’m a big chicken about heights. To me, standing on the kitchen table to replace a light bulb is a reckless, terrifying, heart-stopping event. It’s like running through the lion’s cage at the zoo dressed as a pork chop.
So coming up this high – and I don’t believe any human being should ever, ever be up this high – is a big deal for me. I would only ever do it if the subject-matter was also a big deal.
For me, this is.
I don’t know any of you here tonight, although I am hoping that will change soon. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I’m willing to bet that for all of us, the subject-matter of this gathering is personal. Intensely personal.
All of you, I suspect, have lost someone to this terrible scourge – to this, the great avoidable plague of our time. Someone in your family, or a friend, or someone you have known in your life. So in that sense, this issue is not merely something to be debated, and focus-grouped, and spun out in a strategic communications plan.
It is more than what the media call, in their bland, antiseptic way of describing the great dramas in a human being’s life, “an issue.” It is more than that word. It is personal.
My personal experience with this terrible tobacco virus is bookended by two memories.
One memory, at the age of seven or so, involves me sending away for Canadian Cancer Society anti-tobacco posters to put up on my bedroom walls. It also involves a younger me praying to God every night, really praying, that my parents would not smoke – my mother, cigarettes sometimes, my father cigars and pipes. If the prayers didn’t work – which they didn’t, not for a long time – I would find their tobacco and quietly throw it in the garbage.
They’d know who did it, eventually, but they never got mad at me for it. Because they knew that, even though I was seven years old, I was right. My father, who was doctor and who gave up cigarettes when I was born, knew that most of all.
So that is one memory, from the age of seven. That is one personal experience.
The other personal experience came one year, five months, ten days and about eight hours ago.
It involves me sitting on a chair on the third floor of the Kingston General Hospital – where, three decades earlier, my father had worked as a physician, saving and bettering lives – and watching, from what seemed like a distance of a million miles, my father relate to my mother and me that the cough that had not gone away was more than a cough. It was cancer, and it was in his lungs, and in three weeks, it would kill him.
And I remember, as they held each other and I sat there stupidly, unable to comprehend, I remember my father’s words very clearly. This is what he said. He said: “We are going to join a class-action suit against the tobacco companies.”
We never got a chance to do that. The cancer was without mercy, as it often is, and it moved through him as if it had been fired from the barrel of a gun. We buried him a few days later, on my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.
That is my second experience – my personal experience – with the issue that has brought us up into the clouds tonight. The image of my father holding his high school sweetheart, and telling us it was time to go after these people who know – who know – that they peddle death for a living, like terrorists do. Although, from my perspective, terrorists tend to be a bit more forthcoming about their culpability.
That is how I wanted to start tonight. Talking about my own personal experience – in the belief that you, too, have a personal experience that is just as painful, and that makes you as angry as I still am about these killers in $5,000 tailored Armani suits.
It wouldn’t be entirely true to say I am here tonight just because of my Dad. The truth is you had me going way, way back, to when I was seven years old. Back to when I was taping those anti-tobacco posters onto my bedroom wall.
But it is true to say that I am here with a renewed focus – as someone who is alleged to know something about running campaigns, and as someone who wants to use what I have learned about campaigns to assist in this, one of the greatest campaigns of all: the campaign to rid ourselves of this foul pestilence that killed my father, and perhaps killed someone close to you, too. This plague that has killed too many, in too many places, for too long.
I am known in this country as a political activist, someone who runs campaigns for candidates and political parties. I work for people I believe in and whom I like, and I am pretty busy at that. Along the way, I have learned a few things about how to conduct campaigns.
Those of you who are here tonight know a lot about campaigns, too. I have no lessons to offer to a group as dedicated and as honourable as this one.
But, in every campaign I have helped to run, I have found it worthwhile to take a bit of time – before the campaign, after the campaign – to evaluate the effectiveness of our strategies and tactics. When we do that, we always learn something new, and we always learn that we could have done something better. Let me offer, then, a few suggestions about the strategies and tactics we can perhaps use in our campaign for against tobacco and those who sell it.
Number one: facts tell, stories sell. Facts tell, stories sell.
The tendency a lot of us have, when facing off against a group as well-funded and as evil as Big Tobacco, is to be sucked into a war of statistics. To try and win the day with columns and graphs and charts and numbers.
I know why all of us do that, sometimes. In our case, in our cause, it is because the statistics are so clearly on our side of the debate. Our facts and statistics are irrefutable. They certainly support our contention that tobacco will kill you, if you let it.
But here is one thing I have learned on the political campaign trail. It is one of the first things I inevitably tell my fellow campaign workers, on day one of the campaign.
People are busy in their personal lives. Busy taking kids to hockey practice, or ballet lessons, or earning a living, or simply trying to catch up on their sleep.
It is not that the people we are trying to reach in our campaigns are in any way unintelligent. They’re smart. No, the fact is that they are really, really busy. As David Korn memorably observed, voters and consumers are overwhelmed by what he calls “data smog.” That is, they are bombarded every day, every hour, by thousands of images and words. They do not have time to absorb all of the data smog, so they tune it out. They turn it off.
In those circumstances – in what is, literally, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 500-channel universe – statistics will not work. What works best is a story: a short, simple story that puts a human face on what you hope to say.
If we come up with a scientist, they will buy a scientist. If we come up with a medical report, they will buy a doctor’s soul, and produce false medical reports. If we come up with charts of tobacco mortality rates, they will come up with more charts, filled with lies.
They’ve got a lot of money, after all – they had enough money to recruit a former Conservative Party Chief of Staff, Norman Spector, as their head lobbyist. And the current Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin, was an Imasco board executive for many, many years – which may explain why this Liberal government is so pathetic on the anti-tobacco front.
But if we come up with a story – a short, simple compelling story, told with emotion and conviction, told over and over – they cannot equal that. They will lose.
Their fake science, and fake medicine, and fake charts, cannot ever equal what happened to my father, or your mother, or your brother or sister, or someone who was loved, and who we lost. If that is the battlefield – real stories, filled with real people living real lives – the tobacco merchants will never win the war. We will beat them.
Facts tell, stories sell. That is one important thing I have learned political campaigns, and one thing I know will assist us in the campaign that brings us all together here tonight.
That is one piece of advice. Here is another, which is point number two: always pulling our punches will not work. Taking the high road all the time will not work. Looking for the reasonable middle ground will not work.
Like I said, and like you already know: this is a war, a real war, with real casualties. As in any war, as in any political campaign, I have always found that it is very difficult for my opponent to hit me if I hit him first. And I mean hitting hard. Making it hurt.
In political campaigns, that’s sometimes called “going negative.” I don’t think it’s that. I don’t think it’s negative to tell the truth.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Going negative doesn’t work. It’s a sign of a desperate campaign. The media don’t like it. When people get polled about it, they say they don’t like it.
And that is certainly true. If you commission a quantitative poll, and you ask people: “Do you approve of negative political advertising,” they will always say no. It’s analogous to asking them if they approve of death, or being pushed out of that window at the CN Tower. They will always say no, if that’s the question.
But that’s letting language do our thinking for us. The question is not whether people approve of negative advertising, and whether they think it works. The question is whether they have ever seen tough, critical but factual messaging that worked on them. Do they approve of that?
They may say they don’t pay attention to it, but they do. They may say they are not influenced by it, but they are. Getting tough – kicking ass in campaigns – works.
Let me relate an anecdote – not, you will note, statistics – to prove my point.
When I was in law school back in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, I worked weekends as a cops reporter at the Calgary Herald newspaper. Law school was boring, and it was a good way to earn some extra dollars. So I hung out in the newsroom all weekend.
Quite regularly, I would get sent out with a photographer to cover big car crashes that typically involved someone getting hurt. The photographer would take a photo, I’d write a story.
Whenever we printed the resulting photo, the same thing would always happen: readers would call in to call us insensitive, and bloodthirsty, and all sorts of other names. They didn’t like photos of big car crashes, they told us, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Fine. But here’s the thing: whenever I was out covering those car crashes, I would observe every single car – every single one – stopping to take a long, hard look at the crash scene. Hell – some of them would even park, get out of their car, and take a few pictures of their own.
That’s what I learned about so-called negative campaigns. If you ask people if they like them, they will always say no. But whenever some so-called negative stuff is broadcast, people will always slow down to take a look, or maybe even snap a photo.
In other words, what voters and consumers say – and what voters and consumers are influenced by – are completely different things.
That’s why, when I am running a campaign, I am always prepared to tell the critical facts about an opponent. If they have done or said something on the public record that is hypocritical, or offensive, or stupid, then it is right and proper for me to go at them, factually and forcefully. It’s my job, in fact.
So, when you are formulating your next campaign against Big Tobacco, and the sleazebags who profit from hawking cigarettes to children, don’t hesitate to hit them, and hit them hard. You may get a couple Nervous Nellies on your board, or among your donors, who profess to be unmoved by your tough, factual messaging. But don’t pull your punches. Don’t look for a reasonable middle ground with sleazebags who do, in fact, profit from hawking cigarettes to children.
Facts tell, stories sell. Hit your opponent hard, and make it hurt.
My third and final piece of advice is this: speed kills. As in, speed kills your opponent.
Let me tell you a secret to illustrate what I mean.
In a previous life, I was a litigation lawyer – and, hearing me talk about keeping things simple, and punching out Big Tobacco, that piece of news probably doesn’t surprise you at all. One day I got offered a job by Jean Chretien, who had won the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.
A lot of friends and clients told me I was crazy to consider Chretien’s job offer. “He’ll never be Prime Minister, Warren!” they told me. “Don’t throw away your promising legal career!”
Yeah, well, whatever. I guess he did okay. Chretien went on to win three unprecedented back-to-back majorities. And I went from being his employee to being his friend.
This week, as some of you may know, my friend Chretien was getting ready for a report about a spending scandal that happened on his watch. The guy who was writing the report despised Chretien, and had given plenty of interviews making that clear. Those of us who paid attention to the issue knew that this guy made Bill Clinton’s nemesis, Ken Starr, look like a paragon of probity and fairness.
Those of us who are close to Chretien debated what would be the right media strategy: respond the day after the report was tabled, or maybe don’t even respond at all. Or respond right away, on the same day, with passion, toughness, and speed.
The debate went back and forth. Don’t overreact, some guys said. Don’t give it too much credibility. Wait until the dust settles. Wait to see what the Liberal Party’s current “leader” – and I use the word in quotation marks – has to say. Wait, wait.
No way, we all eventually agreed. Hit back, fast, hard. Don’t allow a whole news cycle to go by, so that the editorial writers start whining about how they haven’t heard from Chretien. Don’t let our opponents – the right-wing media, the biased report-writer, the “leader” in quotation marks – determine the frame for the debate. Define or be defined, we said.
Chretien went on TV a few hours after the Ken Starr of the North released his bile-filled report, and shortly after the “leader” falsely claimed to be the guy who had cleaned up the scandal. Chretien went out and kicked ass, big time. It worked.
This is my third article of faith in my campaign catechism: respond fast. Don’t wait for a bad story to go away, or assume that a media opportunity will still be there in 24 hours. It won’t.
Let me show you another example of what I’m talking about before I bring this to a close. It’s a good way to finish up, because it ties together my three pieces of advice tonight – one, tell a story. Two, hit hard. Three, be lightning fast.
If you will indulge me, I’m going to read from a book I wrote about political communications called Kicking Ass In Canadian Politics, and also show you something.
[SHOW ‘DAISY’ SPOT]
I could go on, but I fear I have already gone on for too long.
This war in which all of are engaged – against an lying, venal, disgusting, soulless opponent that is better-funded, and better-equipped to run broad-based campaigns – is, like I suggested at the outset, intensely personal. All of us are here for deeply-held convictions and beliefs. It isn’t academic, to us: it’s personal.
But here is my personal view: we owe it to each other – and to our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, now gone – to be better, and faster, and smarter, and stronger than our adversary. We owe it to them to build campaigns that will defeat Big Tobacco, once and for all.
Tell a story – put a human face on what needs to be said. Hit hard. And hit fast.
Thank you very much for giving me the honour of speaking to you tonight. My Dad wanted me to help out, and that’s why I’m here.