Lord of the Lingo

How to pick your words carefully and influence everyone

If Stephen Harper and a lot of Conservative MPs suddenly start showing up at Senators’ games and your local hockey rink, blame it all on American Frank Luntz. Most Canadians have never heard of Luntz, but his work handed Stephen Harper the keys to 24 Sussex, and it just might give him a long-term lease.

Frank Luntz is an American pollster and communications adviser who’s made a living out of telling Republicans how to talk about something that people don’t want in ways that make them think they do want it. Luntz got George Bush re-elected, and he’s now helping him dismantle social security and destroy the fragile U.S. medicare system.

In 1997, Luntz wrote the language bible for Republicans seeking to win back the White House. His 227-page report “Language of the 21st Century” was a communications how-to primer based on more than 200 focus groups held across America.

A long-time adviser to Preston Manning, Luntz is no stranger to politics in Canada. Recently he dropped by Ottawa for a quick chat with Stephen Harper, and a speaking engagement on “Massaging the Conservative Message for Voters” for Civitas, a group of Canadian conservatives that includes Harper’s Chief of Staff Ian Brodie, Campaign Manager Tom Flanagan, and National Citizens Coalition Vice-President Gerry Nicholls.

In his speech, Luntz advised Conservatives to look for embarrassing details on Liberals that would “discredit the Liberals so thoroughly that it will be years before they make it back into power,” and “to link hockey to what you all do” to prove they’re in touch with ordinary Canadians.

There’s no doubt Luntz has influence this side of the 49th parallel. Here’s what he recently recommended Republicans should do to win seats in the U.S. in 2006 (the emphasis is his):

Start and end with ACCOUNTABILITY. It matters most.

Talk about OPPORTUNITY. The Democrats have their fair share of communicators who can rally Middle America by appeals to fairness. Remove that capability and you will hold a majority for a decade.

Cultivate so-called “security moms” with a legislative and communications agenda targeted directly to them. Security will keep these (younger married) women voting Republican if they are addressed directly and personally.

It is perfectly acceptable, if not imperative, that you address the values debate. And yes, it is FAMILY VALUES that Americans want and expect to see in you and your policies.

Language is your base. Symbols knock it out of the park . . . our research has shown us precisely those that work . . . you will never find any symbol as powerful as the American flag.

Luntz is big on symbols. That’s why he emphasizes hockey, which probably works better in Canada than flags, although the Maple Leaf flaps even now in several places on the Conservatives’ website.

But language is his specialty. Luntz’s phrases sound familiar because Mr. Harper’s federal election platform was built entirely on the well-researched Luntz pillars of accountability, opportunity, security and families, all tied to ordinary-folks stuff like giving families money for kids’ hockey gear.

Language is also the reason that the Harper government is making sure that no one who isn’t singing from the Luntz song-book will be allowed to speak on issues of the day. Ministers are given their talking points; public servants, who can’t be trusted to know the language, are asked to stay away from giving speeches; and every government press release is vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office.

As Luntz says, “Language, it’s just like fire. It can either heat your home or it can burn it down.” In Canada, Luntz’s language may have handed the Zippo to a pyromaniac in Ottawa.

Julie Mason has been a political consultant for more than 30 years. A version of this article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.


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