Category Archives: Blog

Election Anniversary: Justin Trudeau’s Three Gears on Trade

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Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Today, Ensight Director and Trade Practice Lead, Adam Taylor looks at the various layers of the Liberal government’s approach to trade policy and free-trade deals, specifically TPP, CETA, and expectations around a deal with China. 

By: Adam Taylor 

During the federal election campaign of last year, international trade was thrust into the spotlight (sort of) when then-Prime Minister Harper announced that negotiations had concluded on the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The Liberal Party walked a fine line neither supporting it like the Tories nor outright opposing like the New Democrats.  Now a year later, we can take a wider measure of how the new government will approach trade issues – especially as these issues are now literally front and centre in politics south of the border and across the Atlantic.

Neutral on TPP

While being careful not to oppose the TPP outright (as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have done), the Liberal position is more nuanced. They support deepening Canada’s trade footprint in Asia, they agree broadly with the negotiated outcomes but aren’t yet ready to sell the deal. Canada’s Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said explicitly this isn’t her job. Against the backdrop of vehement opposition to TPP playing out in presidential politics, it’s a sound strategic holding pattern.  After all, why sell Harper’s deal and be stuck with it (good and bad) if it’s going to fail in the U.S. and end up going nowhere anyway?  A wait-and-see approach is a pretty safe bet these days, especially until we know who will occupy the White House.

Second gear on trade with China

While the Trudeau Liberals inherited the CETA and TPP deals from the previous government, a reboot of the Canada-China relationship is very much in Justin Trudeau’s wheelhouse.  The previous government was criticized for its scattered positions on China. Like the jerky driver whose foot is constantly shifting from the gas to the brake, the result is and was the farthest thing from a smooth ride. Yet under PM Justin Trudeau, a steady, smooth way forward appears to be the objective and so far so good.  Official engagement at the highest levels is happening regularly, exploratory talks toward a full blown free trade agreement have been launched and there’s clearly positive momentum in the wider relationship for the first time in many years.  While the relationship won’t go to fifth gear anytime soon – there are far too many legitimate barriers for that – a stable march forward is a good thing for Canadian businesses looking to deepen  their footprint in what will soon be the world’s largest economy. 

Fifth gear forward on CETA

Under Justin Trudeau’s leadership, Canada is full steam ahead in trying to get the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) signed and brought into force. Trade Minister Freeland is literally working around the clock to bring reluctant EU countries like Belgium onside so that leaders can officially sign the documents that will bring the agreement one step closer to becoming the law of the land. Put simply, the Trudeau government is doing all it can to save CETA.  They’ve renegotiated controversial chapters (investor dispute provisions); they’ve signed new accompanying declarations affirming its “progressive” nature; and they’ve appointed a new CETA Emissary (former trade minister Pierre Pettigrew) to literally work the rooms in Brussels and beyond. In less than a week we’ll know where this historic agreement stands against the forces of protectionism which have now officially landed on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Ensight Post-Election Research Update: A Look Back, One Year In

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Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Previously, Ensight Senior Counsel and lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Don Newman looked back upon the path Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has blazed for his party and surveys the road ahead. Click here to read that article.


By Will Stewart

One year ago as Canadians were busy making their way to the polls, Ensight’s research team was preparing to head out on the road to conduct Canada’s Only Genuine Exit Poll.

After tracking the evolution of issues over the course of the election campaign, Ensight’s research team conducted qualitative research through 10 focus group sessions in Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec City, Halifax, and Toronto. Those sessions were augmented by online focus groups of young Canadians aged 18 to 29 years.

Once the votes had been counted, we sought out the reasons behind why Canadians voted for change in the form of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, what they expected from their new government, and how those choices and expectations would drive the future of governance and political life in Canada.

We found plenty of answers. Here is how they look one year later.

1)     We said that it would be “Back to the Future” which is exactly what we have seen.  Almost every announcement, internationally and domestically, has focused on how Canada is back to being an international leader, a collaborator, a peacekeeper.  The government seems more guided by “We are not Harper” than anything else.  The “Canadian Way” of consultation and leading from the middle is evident in every department.

2)     Not a defeat of the Conservative Party, but a defeat of Harper.  We have now seen that we were correct in that finding as well.  Most of Harper’s top names are gone and forgotten, most recently with the resignation of Jason Kenney to return home to Alberta.  While the Liberals are riding high in the polls, the Conservatives are still strong, despite not having a permanent leader which shows that the party’s support is still there. Contrast that with the NDP, who in the eyes of the public are boarding on irrelevant.

3)     A New Collaborative Tone on the world stage.  We have seen this prediction come true in Paris on climate talks all the way to the UN meetings and the commentary from Trudeau of wanting a seat on the Security Council.  Arms deals to the Middle East conflict zones do dog the government, but the defence strategy of peacekeeping “somewhere” is evidence that they continue to assert their brand of Canada in their own way.

4)     Election of the government on values and vision, not polices.  This has become very true.  We predicted that voters would not rebel against the government for changing their policies as long as they were true to this new vision of Canada.  The Liberals have moved away from their platform promises – from the size of the deficits (promised $10B a year, brought in $30B a year), environmental targets (from Harper’s being “dangerous” to adopting Harper’s target) but yet the government is still enjoying unprecedented support in public opinion polls.

5)     Canadians preferred a “go-slow” approach which is exactly what we have seen. Now one year into his mandate, Trudeau has yet to deliver on many of his promises, opting instead to launch consultation processes for most of them. As the results of those consultations start to come it, Trudeau will face new challenges on plotting and taking a course which will not always be popular with those who invested in the discussions when they do not see their work and recommendations reflected.

6)     More open government. This one is harder to declare victory on. On one hand, the government has taken more lobbyist meetings, given more time for consultations, and is projecting an open government mindset. However, the Trudeau Liberals have also begun to resort to time allocation or closure motions to limit debate in the House of Commons, have seen the Statistics Canada chief resign over political interference, have publicly declared no referendum for electoral system changes, and have an even more centralized staffing model than even Harper ever achieved.

7)     Canadians willing to accept modest deficits if there is a plan to get out of them. We don’t have enough data on this yet. When Trudeau announced his bigger than promised deficit, many were still in their honeymoon period with him; and many still are today. The fall economic update may shed some light on the financial situation which will not likely impact public opinion polls until closer to Christmas.

8)     Environmental issues are important. We found that voters felt that climate change was ignored by Harper and they wanted the new government to do something about it. Now the government has officially adopted the Harper policies on GHG reduction.  While it has not hurt them in the polls yet, we believe that environmental policies will be an issue for Trudeau, but he has more positive brand attributes on this file than Harper so he may be able to place it on the backburner without an impact on votes.

9)     Pipelines, indigenous peoples, TPP – On all these issues we predicted that Trudeau would have to do something.  And we still believe it.  But not much of substance has taken place yet.  The question that is not answered is will voters begin to voice their concerns on these issues or does Trudeau get a pass.

Will Stewart is an Ensight Principal. He has had extensive campaign experience in leadership roles and frequently appears on TV, radio, and invited to speak about campaign strategy and the role of social media in modern campaigns.

Political Perspectives – Justin Trudeau as a Phenomenon

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Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Ensight Principal Will Stewart also provides an update on Ensight’s post-election research, and digs in on how the one-year old government has delivered on its brand promise and outlines the future outlook. Read that article here.

By Don Newman

A year after bringing his Liberal party back from the brink of despair and third place in the House of Commons to a comfortable majority government, Trudeau today is more popular than he was on October 19th, 2015, the night of his dramatic victory.

In Canada’s multi-party first-past-the-post electoral system, Trudeau’s Liberals captured 39.5 per cent of the vote a year ago. That gave the Liberals 184 seats in the 338 seat House of Commons.
Polls twelve months later give Trudeau and the party almost fifty per cent support. Translating that to seats in the House of Commons would give the Liberals over 200.
Trudeau has accomplished this with a stunning public relations operation, a natural flair for appearing in public, impressive discipline and a photogenic shine he shares with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and their young family.

The lack of an effective opposition as both the Conservatives and the New Democrats search for new leaders, has been an added plus. But the first year in office that featured among other notable events; a triumphant state dinner at the Obama White House in Washington, a fawning article complete with plenty of intimate colour photographs of Justin and Sophie in Vogue magazine and countless selfies with Canadians all across the country, has worked to build up the impressive political capital that has the Liberals ten points higher in the public opinion polls that their election night support a year ago.

Skeptics say Trudeau hasn’t made any big mistakes because he hasn’t done anything big. That is only partly true. They have done big things they promised they would do, like settling 25,000 Syrian refugees, changing the tax code so high earners pay more and middle income taxpayers pay less, and launching a promised inquiry into missing aboriginal girls and women.
But it is true that in their first year, the Liberals didn’t do anything hard — which in political terms means anything that could prove unpopular with at least some segments of the electorate. As the year rolled on it became clear to close watchers of the passing show that the “Sunny Ways” promised by Trudeau could not continue indefinitely. That going forward, the success of the government was going to be determined by how it handled the three Es; Energy, the Economy and the Environment.

As the government correctly sees them, the three are intertwined. Canada’s slow growth economy can only grow more quickly if the abundant oil sands resources are exploited and brought to market. That will results in more jobs, more prosperity and more tax revenues to balance government books and finance health care, education and a myriad of other programs.
But those oil sands resources can only be exploited and brought to market if there are new pipelines to carry the bitumen from Alberta to either the Pacific coast in British Columbia or the Atlantic coast in New Brunswick. Environmentalists, both in and outside of Canada, have vowed to shut down the oil sands by opposing any new pipelines and starving them of markets, and by extension, the government of resources.

Trudeau and his Ministers have said that new pipelines can only proceed if they have the “social licence” to be built. That means if the public is convinced that they are safe and as environmentally friendly as they can be. Moreover, the government and Canadians must be seen to be actively working to combat and reduce Green House gas emissions.
This month we saw how the government plans to square that circle. At the end of September it announced it was approving a pipeline. Not an oil sands pipeline from Alberta, but a natural gas pipeline from within British Columbia to the Pacific Coast. The approval comes with more than one hundred conditions that have to be met, but it is a pipeline approval none the less. And almost immediately it was attacked by some environmental and indigenous groups.

Then, one week later, the Prime Minister announced Ottawa is putting a price on carbon — a carbon tax if you will. Trudeau didn’t call it that and he left it up to each province to decide if it wants a straight tax, or a cap and trade system of limiting emissions. But he said if any province doesn’t act, Ottawa will act for it. By 2022 Canadians everywhere will be paying $50 a ton for carbon emissions.

But by then work should be underway on the pipeline carrying natural gas to be liquified at a plant near Prince George on the B.C. Coast. And so should work on another pipeline.
Before Christmas the federal cabinet is expected to approve the twinning of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline carrying oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Vancouver. The new pipeline, which will increase the flow of oil to the west coast by three fold, is opposed by Vancouver’s mayor and other near-by municipalities, by some indigenous groups, but supported by others.

It will be even more controversial than the natural gas line. But the Trudeau government is going to have to find the balance between the E of Environment, and the E of Energy if it hopes to grow the E of the Economy sufficiently to support its ambitious plans.

After a year of Sunny Ways the real task of governing has begun. It will be interesting.

Don Newman is senior counsel at Ensight and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Political Perspectives – A President’s Executive Decision In The Woods

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By Jesse Robichaud

A few days before police officers in bulletproof vests dragged pipeline protestors out of a the very first National Energy Board consultations on Energy East in a Montreal conference room, a relatively more civil conversation was taking place at a rural gas station cash register in the State of Maine.

“Those aren’t real jobs,” a disgusted customer told the cashier. “Selling firewood or standing behind a counter selling maps isn’t a real job.”

What the man did not need to say, in this part of the country, is that “real jobs” are in the forest sector, in manufacturing, in trucking and working for the suppliers and vendors who form the links of traditional supply chains.

The cashier, who happened to be standing behind a counter, agreed forcefully.

The pair were discussing President Obama’s controversial decision to short circuit many years of contentious debate over the establishment of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It’s essentially a national park, but Obama couldn’t call it one without the consent of Congress, which he did not have. He did have the land, donated by the family of Burt’s Bees tycoon Roxanne Quimby, and used his executive powers to proclaim it a national monument.

The backlash the proclamation has generated from pro-development voices in the region proves the “not in my backyard” attitudes and values that have paralyzed pipeline projects in British Columbia, gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga, and natural gas development in New Brunswick are not monopolized by environmental activists or those who simply oppose development.

Katahdin is famously immortalized in the works of Thoreau and famous as the Appalachian Trail’s spectacular granite finish line, which breaches the clouds at 5,267 feet of altitude on Baxter Peak. No one on either side of the years-long divisive debate would argue about the region’s natural splendors and pursuits. Where the friction arises is in the ways these treasured lands can or can’t be used within the national monument’s 87,500 acre boundaries. In Millinocket, the town closest to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, a genuine, uniformed National Parks Service ranger handing out free maps to the new monument immediately rattled off carefully refined talking points about how hunting, fishing, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles would be allowed.

But opponents say the park is a “job killer” that will place the final nails in the region’s embattled forestry industry. Supporters counter by pointing to the potential of hundreds of jobs in tourism, recreation, real estate and other soft benefits. Of course, it is hard to say either side is totally wrong or totally right, and therein lies one of the major challenges facing governments who are left to build public policy amid a fractured landscape of opinion and confrontation that can be enhanced by news media and entrenched interests.

On my own roadtrip to hike Mount Katahdin in the nearby Baxter State Park late last-month, I overheard comments on both sides of the issue. “That’s big business talking, that’s all that is” I heard one man say at a supermarket in Millinocket regarding the philanthropic gift from the Quimby family, which was accompanied by a pledge of $40 million to support the monument’s creation. A park supporter swore the loud opposition is only a vocal minority, and that most people in the region support the move. Maine’s controversial and Trump-supporting Republican governor Paul LePage says the decision was the result of Obama and other Liberal elites overriding the will of the people of his state.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument does more than just demonstrate the sliding scale on which political values can diverge on each side of the Canada-U.S. border. It also highlights the growing tensions between the perspectives of urban and rural residents, the power struggle between federal governments and sub-national governments, as well as the difficulty in developing and measuring social license for natural resource development and major projects.

Consultation has become one of the preeminent political buzz words of our time, and for good reason it has become perhaps the chief challenge for those attempting to fulfill expectations of open, responsive government. President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both attained power by appealing to the sunny side of the electorate and promising to unite rather than divide.

But on an issue such as the Katahdin Woods and Waters, Obama learned there is a limit to public consultation, particularly when views are so diametrically opposed that one side is not going to like the decision. For him, that limit was the two-term limit on his own presidency. With his time running out, Obama cut through the debate. He made the executive decision.

In Ottawa and in provincial capitals across the country, elected officials and political staff are drawing up consultation schemes and communications strategies around a constellation of hot-button issues related to pipelines, natural resource development, the rights of Indigenous peoples and local landowners, environmental protection and climate policies.

There are more than just two sides at odds in these ongoing debates, and so far Trudeau has deftly catered to most of them. After all, he won big last October as his Conservative and NDP opponents failed to seize on pipeline-related issues in any way that ultimately mattered.

However, Trudeau’s skillful communications tact will, at some point, have to give way to a firm decision. In fact, expectations on most sides of these issues continue to rise, not fall, as regulators continue their work and consultations are deployed. In matters of such high stakes and national importance, there will invariably be winners and losers. The question now is – how long it will take for us to find out who will end up on which side of the Prime Minister’s own executive decision.

Jesse Robichaud is a Consultant at Ensight. He served as an advisor to the Premier of New Brunswick, and worked as political correspondent.

Social Media Watch – Summer’s Almost Gone… How Federal Parties Are Transitioning on Social

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By: Jeff Blay and Adam Schwartz

Shirtless selfies, surfing trips, pride parades and concert-going have dominated social media during the first summer of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government’s leadership. But as the season comes to and end and the House of Commons resumes on Sept. 19, the focus will quickly shift to agenda pushing, debating and policy moving.

While there are still signs of the feel-good, constituency-focused themes of summer across all three federal parties, we’re beginning to see a transition into the more politically-charged issues that will soon rule Ottawa.

With Labour Day passed and only 10 days until the House sits, we decided to take a look at what content each party is focusing on and which party is performing best on social.

The Liberals 

As they did at this time last year leading up to the federal election, the Liberals are once again leading in social activity and engagement. Through the first week of September, the Liberal Party generated 13 million potential impressions on Twitter, with the majority of activity focused on retweeting positive announcements and messages from MPs as they prepare to return to Ottawa. Key issues being pushed on social by Trudeau and the Liberals include the PM’s visit to China, investing in youth and the teacher tax credit.

The Conservatives

The Conservatives, on the other hand, continue to use their official party account far less than the Liberals or NDP and have the lowest potential impressions at 1.7 million. Over the past week, they’ve been openly critical of Trudeau on multiple occasions, which has resulted in negative engagement and backlash from Liberal and NDP supporters. Adding to the Conservative’s lack of positive engagement is the social media firestorm created by leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, who has been met with significant criticism — including from Conservative MP Michelle Rempel —after announcing her immigrant screening proposal. 


The NDP have quietly been using social media successfully, leading all parties in total tweets sent from the official party account and generating a total of 18 million potential impressions — more than the Liberals, but likely a result of sending out nearly two-times the amount of tweets. Content has been focused on amplifying positive messages from NDP MPs and retweeting high-profile articles that align with party positions, with organic content focused largely on private health care.

On average, the Liberals have consistently outperformed opposing parties on social media dating back to the October 2015 election. But can they maintain the positive exposure as Trudeau approaches the one-year mark of his leadership? We’ll have the answers in future editions of Social Media Watch.

– Jeff Blay, Communications and Digital Coordinator,  Enterprise (,@JeffBlay) and Adam Schwartz, Associate Consultant, Navigator (

Political Perspectives – Perfect Timing For Liberal Summer Caucus Retreat

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By Greg MacNeil, Vice President

Moments ago, the Prime Minister wrapped up his post-caucus retreat media availability. This is the first time the caucus has gathered together since June. Unlike the recent Cabinet retreat in Sudbury, Liberal members did not have to share rooms with each other.

The timing of this year’s Liberal summer caucus retreat could not have been better for the government. After more than a week of news articles about inappropriate expenses submitted by Cabinet Ministers, the government used the retreat as an opportunity to reset and focus on core mandate promises like addressing climate change and encouraging economic growth.

While policy discussions were the primary focus of the retreat, there were lengthy discussions about operations. Specifically, how offices are handling expenses in order to avoid future distractions. Due to a change implemented at Treasury Board, Access to Information (ATIP) requests are being processed faster. Given this new reality, more stories about inappropriate expenses are bound to happen unless there is a cultural change in each office. More political oversight of expenses is being instituted in order to avoid future mistakes.

Caucus members were also told about some of the staff changes made in ministers offices. Specifically, many of the changes that occurred were done in an attempt to increase communications capacity in offices that are expected to receive more public attention over the coming months.

Over the next month, the government is expected to focus more on international relations. This morning the government pledged up to 600 soldiers and up to an additional $450 million in funding. The Minister of Defence will be going to London in two weeks to discuss with partner nations where these commitments are needed.

Next week, the Prime Minister and Minister Dion, will be heading to China to discuss ways in which the two nations can strengthen their relationship. Following these bilateral discussions, the PM will attend the G20 summit in Beijing. Lead ministers at the G20 summit will be Minister Morneau and Minister Freeland. The government is widely rumoured to be pursuing a free trade agreement with China. Minister Freeland is expected to raise a number of current trade irritants with the Chinese government. One of the more high-profile non-tariff trade barriers expected to be discussed is the recent restrictions on Canadian canola. Keeping in the spirit of Sunny Ways, the Minister is planning to give Chinese Government a jar of Canadian Canola Oil.

Social Media Watch – The Tragically Hip Edition

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Legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip played the final show of its Man Machine Poem Tour in Kingston, Ont. this past weekend, captivating audiences across Canada – 11.7 million tuned in to TV, radio and livestream broadcasts, according to CBC.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the concert, sporting a Tragically Hip t-shirt and jean jacket, to see off the band and frontman Gord Downie, who was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

A photo of Trudeau embracing Downie went viral on social media and in news stories across the country. Tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts about The Hip received the most traction and engagement of any other posts from Trudeau’s accounts over the past week.

Prior to the show, Trudeau praised the band in an interview with CBC host Ron Maclean, discussing the band’s importance to Canadian music. During the show, Downie mentioned the Prime Minister on more than one occasion, specifically mentioning issues around Indigenous peoples.

Some reports suggested Downie was endorsing Trudeau, while others took it as a challenge for Trudeau and the Liberal government to take greater action to address the issue.

The transcript of Downie’s statement during the show reads:

“He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been [ … But] we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help. […] It’s really, really bad, but we’re going to figure it out — you’re going to figure it out.”

Downie received an outpouring of support for using the nationally broadcast show as a platform to bring attention to Indigenous issues, so for this week’s Social Media Watch, we decide to take a look just how big an impact it had.

In addition to multiple trending topics throughout the weekend of the concert, social media posts about The Hip and Downie’s First Nations comments generated roughly 20 million potential impressions across Canada over the past week. Peak activity came on Aug. 21, the day after the show, where there were 38,000 captured posts. From Aug. 19-26, there have been a total of 104,034 social posts related to The Hip.

What’s really telling is that Canada has about 14 million daily Facebook users, so when we look at the impressions generated, we can conclude almost everyone in the country who used the Internet or social media came in contact with the story in some way. 

For the week of August 21, The Hip were among the top image, news, video, and general searches in Canada.

We looked at CTV to demonstrate an example of the impact the story had on news and social exposure for Indigenous issues. CTV tweeted a link to a story about Downie’s call-to-action for Indigenous support in the north following the concert, which generated 69,450 potential impressions. Prior to that, the last time CTV tweeted about an Indigenous story was on May 17 related to First Nation children living in poverty on reserves — a tweet that gained 51,000 potential impressions.

This suggests that the Downie story exposed an additional 18,450 people to the issue or increased support by 34 per cent.

Whether or not The Hip was endorsing Trudeau or calling him out to take action, one thing is certain: people paid attention. People responded. And Indigenous issues are once again at the forefront among Canadians and in Canadian politics.

– Jeff Blay, Communications and Digital Coordinator,  Enterprise (, @JeffBlay) and Adam Schwartz, Associate Consultant, Navigator (

Lavoie: Do You Have A Tribe?

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By: Joseph Lavoie, Ensight Principal 

As humans, we are all ill-equipped to live on our own. We’re social animals who have coalesced into tribes since the beginning of time. And for literally ages, most of our tribes were organized along (often fluid) geographical lines. Our tribal associations led to the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia; the rise of cities that we would recognize 5,000 years later, and the invention of writing, among other achievements. Even in more recent times, tribes were largely organized by geography—our local places of worship, bowling clubs, knitting groups etc. Geography placed such an important role in our ability to gather that national hobby organizations have long been structured around local chapters—think boy scouts, girl guides, homebrewing clubs etc.

Today, we’re agnostic towards geography. Thanks to the Internet, tribes that would never have existed in a pre-digital age are now thriving online communities. It’s a completely predictable outcome—our natural instinct to organize and identify with tribes runs deep. In our line of work, we often think about the “ audiences” we need to target to get our message out. It can be easy to forget that these “audiences” are real people—human beings who collectively want to belong to something. We’re often too focused on how we get our message in front of the right eyeballs, we forget to take a moment to reflect on what motivates the people we need to reach, and what shared interests they might have. By addressing those questions, we might stand a better chance of making our content resonate.

In the public affairs and advocacy space, tribes are the vocal supporters and fans who believe in our cause (or worse, in a cause that’s mobilizing against us) to the point that they are willing to tell everyone they know about it. And in exceptional cases, they’re willing to step away from the keyboard to express their support in tangible ways: voting at the ballot box, becoming active shareholders, organizing a hostile takeover, demonstrating in the streets, to name a few.

Of course, it’s a cliché to say, but the Internet lets these same activists bring more fuel to the fire. They can use the Internet to self-organize and lend your movement legitimacy, or bring total disruption if you’re on the wrong side of an issue. One hyper-active member can bring more people onside, growing and cultivating an army of supporters. And while activists were once constrained by geography, this has become a thing of the past. This means tribes can become overnight movements that can either build your reputational equity or make your life a living hell, depending on which side of the tribe’s shared interests you find yourself on. The Internet makes the infrastructure easy: all it takes is an Internet connection, a shared interest, and a digital gathering place, and you technically have a tribe. But that alone won’t be enough. A tribe is a living, breathing thing. Something needs to be the glue that holds these individuals together. That could be you and/or your organization.

The Power of a Tribe

But why would you want to build your own tribe? We often tell our clients that one day soon, some outside force will have a direct (and potentially) negative impact on their business. It could be that government is considering new legislation or regulations directly impacting your business. Or the public has decided to side with third-party interests groups targeting you or your industry; or that you’re on the receiving end of a hostile takeover. You’re always at risk. In our experience, most organizations have the appropriate resources in place to do conventional corporate communications, government relations and investor relations, but few, if any, have a program to build a tribe of active supporters. And by failing to build and cultivate tribes, organizations are at risk of being outmaneuvered by tribes with opposing interests. For example, most companies wait until a legislative or regulatory crisis erupts before rallying supporters to their defence. But for such a cry to have any effect, you need to have an attentive tribe at your disposal. In today’s environment, you simply cannot do public affairs well without having a tribe in your corner. But building that tribe is a laborious exercise. So how do you get there?

Identify shared interests.

As with most things in life, the hardest part is starting out. The work of identifying your potential tribe members starts from the inside. Look around. What type of people are working for your organization or your cause? What motivates them? Why do they care about your line of work? Then work your way out. What common characteristics do your shareholders or members have? Why have they decided to align themselves with you? If you already have an online presence, take a look at your fanbase. Ask the same set of questions. Rinse and repeat and you’ll soon uncover common threads—shared interests that unite them. You may even uncover a variety of shared interests, which could be a sign that you have multiple tribes in your orbit that you could foster.

Understand the tribe’s language and speak it. 

In a study by Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway, even online communities have their own language with a tendency to deliberately use misspelled words, much as people have regional accents when they speak. For reasons I will never comprehend, Justin Bieber fans have a penchant for ending their words with “ee,” as in “pleasee.” Of course, these are literal examples, but each tribe has its own language. They approach issues with a certain view. They have a specific vocabulary (e.g., how some right-wing activists refer to the CBC as the Communist Broadcasting Corporation instead of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the Toronto Star as the Red Star, for their perceived left-wing bias). If you want to build a tribe, or mobilize one, you’ll stand a better chance if you’re part of the tribe. And that means you have to talk the talk. That’s where public opinion research can be your friend, especially if you tap into big data sources like Facebook topic data.

Map your tribe’s personas. 

Now that you’ve gathered data you need to make it useable. That means fleshing it out and putting it in a digestible format. Using the the findings from our first exercise (finding shared interests), and the cursory information gleaned from the second exercise (getting a feel for the tribe’s language), you now need to gather demographic info that can help you paint a complete picture of all the types of individuals who make up your tribe. Can you distill that information down to easily identifiable personalities—a visual representation of who you need to reach out to with all your outbound communication efforts to make an emotive connection?

Test the messages that motivate action.

Now that you have identified the type of individuals that would be inclined to join your tribe, you need to put content out in the ether and see what sticks. You won’t have a true sense of what actually works until you put content out there, but by now you should have a sense of whether it stands a chance.

Be the glue that holds the tribe together.

As you begin to put out and test your messages, you have a much more important objective: build relationships with the people you’re courting. Keep your tribe informed about new developments; ask them for advice; seek their help when you need them to take action; and give back as much as you can. For the most part, email, private messages, and Facebook pages will be the vehicles through which you contact your tribe members. Too often, we’re so focused on trying to get something out of our “list” that we forget how exhausting it is to be on the receiving end of non-stop asks. A tribe will stick with you if you provide value and if you give more than you take.

Building a tribe and then nourishing it is tough work. It takes a lot of time and patience — two things no one can buy. But, with diligent and thoughtful work, it can be done. And these days, it should be done. Favour can change as fast as tribes can be created, and you never know when you’ll need a community in your corner.

Joseph Lavoie leads Navigator’s Digital Practice and has a decade of communications and public affairs experience. Joseph returns to Navigator after serving, first, Foreign Minister John Baird and, then Prime Minister Harper as Director of Strategic Communications.

Social Media Watch – From Rio to the PMO

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This week we saw what an international spectacle looks like on social media. The Olympics in Rio are dominating every platform, with users creating plenty of unique content reacting to the games and ceremonies, sharing news articles from the games, and retweeting content from all over the world.

It’s pretty rare that so many countries are actually engaging with similar content at the same time. The effect is noticeable in the amount of potential impressions for Olympic content compared to the consistently strong social media performance of Justin Trudeau, which have comparable author and post totals. The international scope, provides a broader network for retweets and other types of sharing or amplification causing more people to be exposed to a similar volume of content.

Sticking to Canada, when Canadians weren’t drawn in by the Olympics, they were mostly talking about The Prime Minister’s chest. Justin Trudeau normally generates a lot of social media activity, however this week it was notable how much of it was not directly related to any policy. Strategically, he seems to be allowing the Olympics and his abs to distract from tough economic news also released this week. The fact that it’s summer also helps, but it is notable how little traction stories about Canada’s economy were able to generate beside happier stories.

Social Media Watch will be watching closely to see how The Prime Minister adjusts his strategy in the absence of convenient distractions like summer weather and the Olympics. Will he continue to rely on charisma to distract from what is potentially very bad news or try and transfer the good will he’s been building on social media into viral support for his policies?

– Jeff Blay, Communications and Digital Coordinator,  Enterprise (, @JeffBlay) and Adam Schwartz, Associate Consultant, Navigator (

Social Media Watch – Interprovincial Trade

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Interprovincial trade has been a hot topic in Canada over the past couple of weeks, and many people across the country have taken to social media to weigh in on the issue.

With summer in full swing and federal political issues not as prevalent as they typically are when the House of Commons is in session, Ensight thought this would be a great opportunity to analyze how stories traveled between provinces on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.

As it turns out, the task was a bit more convoluted than expected. We found Canadian news cycles and topics on all digital media—not just social—tend to mirror geographical boundaries. Or at least they did this week.

Overall, news stories on a national or federal level often receive consistent engagement in every province when accounting for population size. These type of stories generate wide spread chatter by amplifying content through national outlets’ far-reaching social media networks.

CBC, The Globe and Mail and The National Post circulate stories of national interest on main feeds, dedicated provincial channels and reporters’ accounts on every main social network. Huffington Post, Vice and Macleans have similar strategies.

This layered amplification technique, where the same content is circulated by multiple accounts in a short period of time, as national outlets coordinate with provincial and sometimes local affiliates to circulate their content with a country-wide scope in smaller markets, means many Canadians often see the same story multiple times in their feeds.

If that was too much of a mouthful, how about a quick example.

Someone following CBC on Facebook or Twitter who lives in BC, likely follows CBC’s BC channel as well. The main account, for CBC and any national outlet, produces more content than the area-specific account. Since they coordinate retweets or shares, anyone following both sees national stories as content from the national and local accounts but the sharing does not go both ways. Therefore, local stories are rarely amplified on national accounts. For example, it is unlikely for someone in PEI to be invested in Saskatchewan’s provincial election enough to tweet about it.

From a digital communications perspective, this confirms that the established categories for printed news—sorting content by scope and physical geography—still apply on social media. Digital content makes it easier for users to consciously seek out news from other provinces, but that’s not the focus here. In terms of natural amplification or the free trade of digital content between provinces, generally, people get national news from national sources and will only encounter something from an outlet in another province in their news feed if the story is somehow related to them, which in many cases, would technically mean it’s not a local news story.

This was confirmed when we analyzed discussion this week around interprovincial trade.

From July 23-29, the topic generated an estimated 2,912,458 impressions, including 51 per cent retweets, 46 per cent being original posts and three per cent comments.

The data shows there were plenty of accounts sharing news articles and related content, but very little commentary, suggesting the issue is of interest to Canadians, but is not resonating on an emotional level, which is often required to generate significant social media engagement and commentary. It is very difficult to discuss trade deals in 140 characters, so most of the content was sharing news articles with an occasional blanket statement of support for the idea.  

Looking at sentiment around the topic, 58 per cent was positive, 40 per cent neutral and two per cent negative. Neutral posts are related to amplification—retweets and shares—suggesting Canadians are pro interprovincial trade as a concept.

Since the framework of the hypothetical deal is still very much in flux, we’d expect the volume of negative activity to increase as more details are finalized—not because Canadians will suddenly change their minds, but that the volume of negativity surrounding the concept of reducing restrictions on trade between provinces is so low. At present, social media is very much in favour of what’s been reported so far.

As talks progress and people inevitably disagree with some aspects of whatever decisions are made, they’ll voice their opinion on social media. This will cause negative sentiment to increase from two per cent, however, baring some major change in the national psyche, we expect Canadian social media chatter will still favour interprovincial trade.

– Jeff Blay, Communications and Digital Coordinator,  Enterprise (, @JeffBlay) and Adam Schwartz, Associate Consultant, Navigator (