The decision by the Ontario PC election campaign team to limit Doug Ford’s exposure to questions from journalists simply boils down to risk versus reward.
It’s a calculation that politicians make in every encounter with the news media, but at election time the stakes for the parties are higher.
As the incumbents, with a comfortable nine-point lead (according to the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker), the Progressive Conservatives calculate that the risks posed by Ford facing prolonged questioning from reporters far outweigh the potential rewards.
It’s why Ford’s handlers keep his appearances to the tight “one question, one follow-up” format established during his more than 200 pandemic news conferences. It reduces the chance that Ford gets confronted with an unexpected question and has to venture into unscripted territory.
“What he needs to do, and what his campaign is probably relying on, is to run a disciplined and cautious campaign where you’re not making mistakes, where you’re not creating some sort of story,” said Karman Wong, founder of KPW Communications.
“How do you do that safely? You don’t give [the media] any opportunity to watch you fumble.” said Wong, who served as a media adviser to former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty and worked as a TV host and reporter in Toronto.
WATCH| Ford faces questions about why he’s not more available to reporters:
Given his lead in the polls, Ford doesn’t actually need to be making splashy news headlines every day. In fact, his campaign likely benefits from not being the story.
Ford held no scheduled media events for three straight days this week, including skipping out on reporters’ questions after the northern Ontario leaders’ debate.
When Ford re-emerged on Thursday and was challenged on ducking the media, he responded with an inaccurate account of his campaign news conferences.
“I’ve been in front of the press seven times out of eight days,” Ford said in Kitchener. “I think that’s a pretty good percentage.”
Thursday was the ninth day of the campaign, and media covering Ford were given notice of news conferences on just six of those days.
The Progressive Conservatives are “replaying a playbook that worked very well for them last time,” said Karl Baldauf, vice-president of McMillan Vantage Policy Group and a former chief of staff in the Ford government.
“They want to have a focused message that they repeat ad nauseum … and they don’t want to be knocked off that course,” Baldauf said in an interview.
Reducing the risk that Ford gets knocked off message is best illustrated by the PC campaign’s refusal to grant full-length sit-down interviews with major news outlets.
While Ford has recently gone one-on-one with select local radio station hosts, my research indicates it’s been more than a year and a half since Ford granted such an interview to a member of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery. The most recent was his October 2020 conversation on pandemic recovery with Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn.
“There’s an inherent risk in every media interview that the interviewer will take you off of the key message that you’re trying to advance, and if you’re the PCs, you don’t want to jeopardize that,” said Baldauf.
Ford is the first Ontario premier not to be interviewed on TVO in the 50 years since the provincial public broadcaster was created, reports Steve Paikin, host of its flagship program The Agenda. .
All other major party leaders have agreed to be interviewed during the election campaign, says Paikin, adding, “They can handle 23 minutes of questions from me, but Ford can’t?”
Similarly, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner have all granted one-on-one interviews with CBC News about the campaign. CBC’s request to Ford is still awaiting a response.
Journalists at CBC Radio’s stations around Ontario report that only a few local PC candidates have agreed to interviews during the election period.
Many campaign operatives say it’s only the media who care how often a politician submits to reporter questions, and that ordinary voters couldn’t care less.
Still, the strategy suggests the PCs have written off those voters who do think this matters for democracy and accountability, because they figure those people would not consider voting for Ford anyway.
After Ford left without facing questions following the northern debate on Tuesday, Del Duca tried to make an issue out of it.
“I think it’s arrogant. I think it’s disrespectful,” Del Duca told reporters in North Bay.
“It’s awfully hard to answer questions on the fly when you can’t read a script someone else has written for you, and that’s what he has been doing for four years.”
Del Duca aimed to contrast Ford’s disappearance with his own approach to the media.
“That’s not my style.That’s why I’m out here taking the tough questions gladly,” he said, adding that he took questions from every reporter who had them after releasing his platform Monday.
The reality is Del Duca needs all the media exposure he can get, given how low on voters’ radar he is, according to polls.
In trying to build back from the worst election result in their history, the Liberals and Del Duca have pretty much nothing to lose and everything to gain from talking to reporters.
For the PCs and Doug Ford, it’s the opposite.
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