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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

What Canadian Politics Could Learn From Disney

It's May the Fourth; I couldn't resist doing something Star Wars (aside from lightsabre fights in the yard).  Plus, it's election season, so it works out nicely.

As anyone inside politics will tell you (and as most folk outside probably recognize already), much of how our democratic institutions function is pure theatrics.

Messages are rehearsed, roles are assumed, indignation is faked and communications are rolled out like any old marketing campaign.

Behind these theatrics lies a whole corporate industry - Political Parties, high-priced operatives, various shareholders and all the manipulative, back-room shenanigans one expects from big business.

People are rightly wary of the industry behind the art in both cinema and politics; we don't like the idea that bean counters are making cold, economic choices around narratives that we do fundamentally care about.

Like many, I felt a significant disturbance in the Force when Disney bought Star Wars.  The unease grew as they started to dismantle fan-favourite projects like 1313 and The Clone Wars cartoon.

Would Disney release its micromanagers to reshape The Galaxy Far, Far Away into its own image?

For a while, it really seemed that was going to be the case.  Fans responded in kind through letters and online activity.  

Disney could have done what most besieged organizations do - doubled their fortifications, stifle any internal dissent and hammer home with messaging all the way to the bank.  

But they didn't.

Instead, we got the likes of Dave Filoni telling us how he was making the adjustment, why he'd been a bit concerned in the same way we were and why he was getting excited about what actually laid in store.

At the same time, we started seeing more of Kathleen Kennedy, a very likable lady who understands story, big franchises and what matters most to fan bases.  We got to hear more from other inside folk and even better, started to see a framework for what Disney was intending to do with Star Wars emerge.

It's a pretty bold vision - new movies, more online content, more everything.  

While this was happening, another narrative was subtly developing - not one promoted by Disney itself, but one that shaped almost intuitively by fans and pundits.  

The unspoken reality of Star Wars has become, over the past decade or so, that having made oodles of money with it, George Lucas no longer really felt any need to please fans.  It was his franchise, his story to do whatever he wanted with.  

The Prequel Trilogies ignored fan grievances at the same time as the re-released versions of the original trilogy doodled on the memories of an entire generation (but still maintaining cinema's most famous sibling smooch).

The new folk in charge never said this, nor have they lingered on Lucas' faults.  They tap into the legacy, focusing on the narrative and story and themes and scope, all the things that have breathed life into the franchise and allowed it to grow.

The frame was always respectful; any disapproval of what came before was framed as the negative space to their exciting new portrayal that emphatically would bring the franchise back to the roots that drew us all in the first time "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" hit the screen.

As Disney rolled out its new vision and allowed some of the Star Wars universes most trusted voices to speak freely about where they saw things going, fans began to realize how much they'd been ignored of late and started to feel loved again.

There is still a lot of wooing to be done, but the tone is the right one - let's build the universe together, with the people you like and trust the most being the ones you get to engage with directly.

The Emperor would disprove, but the Mouse-House knows the secret to longevity is engagement and respect.

Meanwhile, there's politics.  Despite the constant leaking, staffers being caught in the media and back-room shenanigans airing in prime time via social media, the seasoned political people still feel that omerta and messaging are the two fundamental principles of electoral success.  

That, and attack your opponents mercilessly with heavy-hitting attack ads.

As some big shifts in leadership are happening (or about to happen) at the helms of many Parties, we're seeing all kinds of disarray, mixed messages and hurt feelings.  Parties themselves are being reframed around new themes.  We're being told that the new leader's vision is better than what we liked, so we better get on board.

This emphasis on "the leader" is key.  They are boldly taking us where we need to go, are we on board?  They will stop the rebels from landing at our shores, are we going to support them?  It's a theme Star Wars fans will be all-too familiar with.

It's not that we don't hear from people other than the leader; that's clearly not the case.  We see various talking heads on our TVs and get countless fundraising requests in our inboxes, all from people we may have heard of and are supposed to see as being like us.

But the messages coming out of these talking-heads all come from the centre; the missives in our inboxes are all from info@emails.  We're not being engaged by real people that we know, we're getting filtered messaging and are expected not to be clever enough to know the difference.

The political corporations think they know what we want, or failing that think that if they repeat what they'd prefer us to want enough, they'll sway us.  Much like The Flanneled One, we're being subjected to every facet of new technology imaginable; instagram pages, micro-targeting robocalls, Nation Builder and the omnipresent Twitter.

But who is the CPC or LPC or NDP equivalent to Dave Filoni?  

They have their operatives who will be wheeled out from time to time to talk to us, but who is there within any party that you actually trust, the way you trust a friend to take care of your favourite characters or mind your fan-property?

As surprising as it may sound, I think there is a great deal that Political Parties in transition can learn from Disney's management of Star Wars.

Here are a couple take-aways:

- It's not about who leads; if the narrative doesn't endure, neither will the Party

- Bring in people you trust not just for their competency or brand loyalty, but because they believe in the narrative itself.

- When you find people you trust, like and feel inspired by, let them carry your message forward, too.  Star Wars worked because of the relationships between characters and the story they shared with us.  It was the bad guy that tried to top-down the whole thing, and failed.

- Your audience is part of your team - respect them, share with them, listen to them and take their advice seriously.  

If you respect them the same way they respect your property, you'll notice this thing that happens called community of engagement.  It's priceless.

- Remember, you carry the torch now, but the flame is supposed to go on forever.

Don't just love what you do - love why you're doing it.  Politics and story telling have this same thing in common; what matters most is the audience.

Good luck, politicos - and May the 4th be with you, always.

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