Thursday, September 12, 2013

What the NCC Taught Stephen Harper

When I worked at the National Citizens Coalition, I thought it was an organization solely dedicated to fighting for economic and political freedom.

However, it turns out the NCC was also something else: a training ground for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Or so says journalist Susan Delacourt in her excellent new book, Shopping for Votes: How politicians Chooseus and How we Choose Them, which details the history of political marketing in Canada.

In the book Delacourt writes the prime minister’s “stint with the National Citizens Coalition from 1997 to 2001 had taught Harper a thing or two about how to lob political ideas into the marketplace. From its humble beginnings as Colin Brown’s protest against government spending in the 1970s, the NCC had grown to be a powerful grassroots ally to conservative politicians in Canada.”

She also quotes former Conservative marketing expert Patrick Muttart as saying, “Throughout my time with him he would personally reference (NCC) campaigns that he ran. He ran an organization that was in the business of erecting billboards, running direct-mail campaigns. So I don’t think we’ve ever had a prime minister who had direct personal experience being a marketer.”

Muttart added this marketing skill was a crucial difference between Harper and his predecessors.

And I have to say, I agree with this assessment.

When Harper was at the NCC, the organization was a political marketing machine without equal.

Although a relatively small group – we had at our height about 40,000 supporters – the NCC managed to raise millions of dollars to fund both national multi-media advertising campaigns and high-profile constitutional court challenges.

What’s more, we also knew how to attract media attention and how to craft a message so that it resonated with the public.

Of course, none of this was easy; it took a lot of hard work and lot of dedicated people to make it happen.

It also took leaders with vision.

In fact, the NCC’s success was largely the result of two men: David Somerville and Arthur Finkelstein.

David was Harper’s predecessor as NCC president and a man of incredible energy and drive, who almost single-handedly turned the NCC from basically a “hobby gone berserk” into a professional organization.

And the smartest move David ever made was to hire Arthur Finkelstein, a tough-as-nails, American political consultant, who also happened to be a genius. (Arthur was recently inducted into the political consultantHall of Fame.)

It was Arthur who taught us how to write effective grassroots direct mail fundraising letters, how to deal with an often hostile media, how to write catchy political ads, and how to wage war against politicians and union bosses.

So given all this, it’s not surprising that Harper picked up a trick or two while at the NCC.

Maybe we should have billed him for the lessons!

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