nav_20_logo

A generation in crisis, positioned to drive change

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the sharpest change to the way we conceptualize the workforce and the workplace in a generation — possibly ever. As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark. Combined with other demographic shifts and increased attention to pressing issues like climate change, we may ultimately look back at this time as a watershed moment that Generation Z workers helped drive.

“As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark.”

Generation Z generally refers to the successor generation to millennials. While anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is a millennial, anyone born from 1997 onward is part of this new generation. As a group, Gen Zers face disproportionate anxiety and economic hardship within this pandemic.  But crises and opportunities are often more aligned than we realize, and it’s worth looking at the role this cohort of students and young professionals can play in shaping the future of work. The financial crisis of 2008 can be of help in understanding this.

Ten years ago, North America began seeing the impacts of a post-recession economy following sustained declines in economic activity and irreversible hits to manufacturing. Over the course of the decade, retirement age increased, and millennials, who at the time were the most ethnically diverse generation Canada had ever seen, inherited a better labour environment than their parents had. The participation of women in the labour force grew and the level of education increased. There was hope.

Millennials helped shape that post-recession economy. Their entrepreneurial spirit led to the influx of start-ups in American cities like Palo Alto, Calif., and New York, as well as closer to home in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. This influx changed the business landscape and resulted in some aspects of start-up culture — such as remote work, unlimited vacation days, and more casual dressing — trickling into the corporate world.

For many workers on Toronto’s Bay Street, and in centres of industry across the country, the concept of a true 9-5 work day dissipated. Desk phones started to become obsolete and the notion of having a corner office was no longer something to aspire to. Mobile technology enabled these changes that added to efficiency, but made checking out at the end of the day far more difficult.

While millennials were not the predominant managers of this shift, they were more adept at it than their older colleagues. As the recent graduating classes of Gen Zers begin to infiltrate the corporate world, they too stand to benefit from their adaptability, digital literacy and comfort with the evolving corporate culture that millennial entrepreneurs helped create.

For the first time in history, we see a generation that entered the workforce with none of the technological supports we use today (including the internet, modern computers or cell phones) working alongside the first fully digital generation. Older generations have had to teach themselves and each other how to incorporate these new technologies into their day-to-day lives, especially during this pandemic. Gen Zers, on the other hand, have never known a life without these technologies.

The norms Gen Zers were raised with have become the only road forward since the pandemic forced organizations to shift to work-from-home arrangements. Boomers and Gen Xers, who may not be as technologically advanced, have been forced to adapt to this new era of remote working. This embracing of technology, which in some cases may have caused tension among the generations, may ultimately level the playing field between digital and non-digital natives.

Even before the pandemic, more companies were looking at ways to incorporate flexible workdays and remote work into their regular environment. But COVID-19 accelerated this thinking and showed employers and larger companies that there may be lasting potential for employees to work from home more often.

Gone are the days when fancy and expensive offices were the norm. Such offices are being replaced by a new way of working that emphasizes flexible arrangements and results in lower operation costs. This will permit companies to focus on investing in the best new technologies, and will open up a new pool of recruits able to benefit from the added flexibility.

Despite this influence and these overwhelming trends in their favour, millennials who entered the workforce at the height of the 2008 recession and Gen Zers entering the workplace now have experienced a common financial and social insecurity. According to a 2019 report conducted by the American Psychological Association, young adults new to the workforce tend to have the highest average stress levels of any generation. Some of these people, especially those who live alone or are new to a city, have come to depend on the human interaction that comes from working in an office space.

This period of rapid change has not been easy, but for some there is an unprecedented opportunity to not only thrive in this environment but to help shape the years ahead. Employers are increasingly required to pay attention to the values of Gen Z and how they may inform their employment decisions.

According to Forbes, Gen Z consumers and recruits look for companies that support green policies and human rights. A decade ago, millennials were starting to think the same way, but companies were not aligning their corporate social responsibility objectives with their business objectives in the same way. That was okay, then.

That institutional reluctance appears to be giving way. Bay Street is embracing anti-plastic movements and climate change summits, and is dedicating resources to green initiatives. According to research from the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, 78 per cent of Canadians think Canadian businesses should do more for the betterment of society. The landscape of corporate Canada is changing: companies are facing intense pressure to improve not only share value performance, but social performance as well.

Just as previous watershed moments impacted other generations, this pandemic will undoubtably be a defining event for Gen Z. While it will shape the way generations across the board work, it will have the most lasting impact on the future of the workforce for this group.

When people look to the future of the workplace, they look to automation, market trends and public policy. In addition to all of this, they should be looking out for Gen Z.

The Price of Righteous Censorship

As Canadians examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 59th U.S. presidential election, campaign strategists are busy unpacking the role Facebook played and the changing expectations of the world’s largest social network. From grassroots fundraising to micro-targeting undecided voters in critical elections, Facebook has set itself apart as the leading digital advertising platform for political campaigns. 

The extent of Facebook’s influence came to light in 2017 when CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that $81 million (U.S.) had been spent on its platform for the 2016 election.1  Since then, Facebook has positioned itself as the cornerstone of any campaign strategy across the political spectrum.

“Once sought for insights by both sides for the capabilities of its platform, Facebook has become a punching bag for both parties.”

When Facebook announced its restriction of political ads during the week leading up to the 2020 election, it aimed “to reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse.” That’s hardly a phrase that instils confidence when trying to decide the leader of the free world. The question asked by many was why now? Facebook has ardently opposed any type of ban on its political ads in past years, so what changed? To answer this question, let’s look holistically at Facebook’s role in the U.S. political ecosystem before analyzing its potential implications for Canada.

Restrictions over Revenue

Facebook finds itself in an unprecedented position at the centre of a political battle between Democrats and Republicans. Once sought for insights by both sides for the capabilities of its platform, Facebook has become a punching bag for both parties. 

The Democrats loudly chastised Facebook for its lack of regulation of misinformation, a dangerous proposition when the election hinged on the backs of undecided voters. Republicans complained of censorship in favour of leftist ideology. Whatever merit each side has to its claim, it’s clear Facebook is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Jodi Butts, expert panelist for the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, recently described the existential crisis Facebook is facing as a search for its purpose: 

When, as a firm or a public figure, you find yourself politically bruised from both the left and the right, it tends to suggest one of two things. The first possibility is that you have effectively held to the ideological centre and are thus bound to displease many on both sides — especially the extremes of both wings. The other potential reason is that you have lost sight of your purpose and become so transactional that neither side can be satisfied. When it comes to Facebook, the latter charge seems closest to the truth.”2

Following the 2016 election, Facebook played it safe. It stood by passively as political parties tore each other apart, leveraging its platform. Facebook’s doctrine was rooted in neutrality. Its position was to let information flow freely and let users decide what to believe. This approach, as we see now, ultimately failed. 

So, what happened?

With the balance of political power still undecided, and an unprecedented scenario of two runoff elections in Georgia, Facebook has doubled down on its restrictions for at least another month.

Democratic backlash against the extended policy has been vocal. Campaigns and agencies alike are echoing sentiment from across the aisle — Facebook’s restriction is a censorship of political information to target undecided voters and share legitimate election information. In Georgia, Democrats are on the verge of flipping two historically Republican seats, but Republicans have already fundraised $28 million more than their Democratic candidate opponents through Super PACs and direct fundraising.3 

“While trying to appease both parties, it may have inadvertently positioned itself as the lynchpin of success or failure of the next administration.”

Online fundraising is key to Democratic strategy. The consequences of Facebook’s advertising ban, intended or not, will have a negative effect on the Democrats’ ability to execute. The party now loses critically important fundraising tools leading up to the election. With the entire nation looking at Georgia, the Democrats’ strength in grassroots mobilization has been weakened considerably. 

This has been the unintended consequence of Facebook’s righteous censorship. While trying to appease both parties, it may have inadvertently positioned itself as the lynchpin of success or failure of the next administration. As Facebook contemplates future removal of the restrictions, Democratic strategists are already scrambling. If they can win this David versus Goliath battle without Facebook, then the tides may shift on how reliant campaigns will be on this platform in the future.

A key question now is: how should Facebook respond? 

It’s not clear what Facebook’s next step will be, but if we accept Jodi Butts’ analysis then it seems Facebook’s aspiration to be neutral has been misguided. Division has already been sowed on the platform, not as a glitch, but as a central part of its profit model.

Facebook made a critical error when it first announced a restriction of political ads leading up to election week and now temporarily in the following weeks. It was a righteous decision with the hopes of mitigating severe public backlash in recent years, but in the battle of misinformation, Facebook has potentially crippled a political party from securing power in the Senate. By restricting paid advertising, Facebook hoped to curb a flurry of right-wing propaganda shared across its platform. However, the result also stops the flow of legitimate paid content around voting and election information. 

Facebook must now engineer a longer-term solution to continue combating misinformation without inhibiting permissible expression. It played a dangerous game trying to appease both sides and the quest for neutrality has been lost. 

What does this mean for Canada?

Of course, Facebook’s decisions in the United States do not exist in isolation and Canadian political operatives are keenly watching what happens there. The two countries may have different advertising climates, but they are confronting similar issues.

Online political advertising in the U.S. is very much akin to the Wild West. Advertisers face little regulation, and the deepest pockets and largest ad budgets are needed to survive. Canada, in contrast, dictates political advertising under a lens of strict scrutiny and transparency. During the 2019 federal election, the combined spend by all three parties for online advertising was $7.8 million — less than 10 per cent of what was spent in the 2016 U.S. election.4 

The dollar goes much further in Canadian political advertising. Restrictive measures around campaign spending and allocation mean strategists must plan media buys resourcefully. Even with these restrictions, Facebook saw itself leap ahead of its competitors. This was due in part to the much stricter policies enacted by Google and Twitter around advertising in Canada. Nevertheless, campaign strategists rely heavily on Facebook to maximize reach and influence. In its 2020 provincial election, the B.C. Liberal Party spent more than $40,000 a day on Facebook.5 Wild West or not, online advertising, especially on Facebook, is central to Canadian political strategies.

The policy restrictions set forth by Facebook will undoubtedly make their way to Canada, as it continually scrambles to adapt to the climate it has helped foster. The targeting of susceptible populations and harvesting of misinformation present legitimate concerns for consumers, policy-makers, and Facebook itself. But the majority of actors lobbying for change are, ironically, using the platform themselves to gain influence over its users. In other words, they may not like living with it, but they can’t live without it.

In Canada, with a federal election looming as early as the spring of 2021, key decisions from Facebook become ever more pressing. With already tight budgets, strategists will need to define alternative allocations and think outside the box to capture the same effect Facebook may have in the witching hour of the election. Strategists already have to work around an Elections Canada ban of online advertising the day of an election and a potential Facebook restriction will only make things harder.  

Facebook may aspire to play a neutral role in Canadian election activity, but the policies it commits to will have a substantial impact on the strategies our political parties use, and ultimately the government we elect. Until it makes key decisions about political advertising and targeting in the Canadian context, political actors wait at the mercy of the social media giant.

Will it be an aggregator? A publisher? Or a neutral information vessel? All signs point to Facebook’s Canadian policy following its U.S. lead and opting out of advertising altogether in the next election cycle. For Canadian political leadership, Facebook can’t decide quickly enough.

 

[1] https://www.vox.com/2017/11/1/16588374/live-updates-facebook-google-twitter-testify-senate-congress-russia-president-election

[2] https://nationalpost.com/opinion/opinion-facebook-has-lost-its-purpose-theres-a-lesson-in-that-for-all-organizations

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/18/politics/georgia-senate-runoff-races-republican-cash/index.html

[4] https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/tv-online-ads-take-lion-s-share-of-party-election-spending-new-reports-show-1.4996155

[5] https://vancouversun.com/news/politics/bc-election/b-c-election-2020-liberal-party-leads-in-facebook-spending-since-the-election-was-called

Shockwaves to the South

NOVEMBER 18, 2020

CANADIANS HAVE A COMPLICATED relationship with American presidential politics. The theatrics we are used to seeing south of the border, fuelled by cable television and deep-pocketed political action committees, have captured our attention the same way we are attracted to sporting events and live music.

But for Canadian businesses, the results are not a game. There are very few countries more dependent on a single trading partner than Canada is to the United States. When our trade relationship works, we are not just exchanging goods, but building things together. Canadian cultural institutions are shaped by alignment with, or occasionally resistance to, movements to the south. And our political leaders are constantly analyzing and responding to their U.S. counterparts.

Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s 15th prime minister, famously referred to Canada’s relationship with the U.S. as akin to “sleeping with an elephant” that affects its neighbour with “every twitch and grunt.” While the former prime minister’s words have been repeated frequently enough to become tiresome, their implications following the United States’ 59th presidential election are less than clear.

President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, and the ascension of populist conservative politics in the U.S., created an instant paradigm shift for the Canadian business community. Consensuses around trade, multilateral co-operation and environmental sustainability were flipped on their head overnight.

Four years later, the U.S. has moved in a different direction, but we’re still studying what this means. Subject to any outstanding legal challenges, a Biden presidency is a win for progressives and centrists in the U.S., as well as international allies that support a return of the U.S. to an aspirational leadership role.

But Trump’s brand of politics remains formidable. With a possibly Republican Senate and conservative-leaning Supreme Court, the ability of a Biden-Harris administration to simply flick a switch and revert to normal is not a given. In this sense, it feels less like we are sleeping with an elephant and more like we are sleeping with a chameleon, still looking at different angles to understand its true colours.

For Canadian businesses, this will take time, but there are lessons to be learned from policy pronouncements made on the campaign trail, the role that social media played in shaping the outcome, and the mandates that elected representatives at the legislative and executive level bring with them.

Navigator colleagues from across the country have analyzed these lessons and outlined five stories that matter for Canadian businesses.

 

 

 

02_Common_Ground

 

FINDING COMMON GROUND ON ENERGY

Zoe Keirstead, Consultant, Calgary

FOR CANADA’S ENERGY INDUSTRY, a sector battling the triple threat of the pandemic, dramatic demand destruction and a commodity price war, a presumptive Joe Biden presidency presents new challenges. However, the change in the White House is also a new opportunity to build relationships and foster a sense of bilateral collaboration.

What the oil and gas industry, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and president-elect Joe Biden share is an understanding that they must work together to combat climate change while simultaneously preserving the economic benefits the energy sector can provide. As both Canada and the U.S. know, the oil and gas industry impacts everyone, not only from an economic standpoint but in terms of quality of life. Canada is not immune to divisive politics, but in the oil and gas sector we have seen a promising shift towards an understanding of working together.

“Canada is not immune to divisive politics, but in the oil and gas sector we have seen a promising shift towards an understanding of working together.”

Kenney and Trudeau may disagree on many policies, but the need to get Canadian resources to market through the Keystone XL pipeline is not one of them. Earlier this year they each made bold statements: Kenney invested $1.5 billion, while Trudeau declared he would press any U.S. government on the construction of the pipeline.

Canada and the U.S. have important shared priorities, such as creating a cleaner environment, social equality, diversity, inclusion and democratic governance. These common values are embraced by the oil and gas industry within North America, but are not shared with other oil- producing nations such as Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

North America’s integrated energy market is the most ethical and environmentally responsible in the world. Any disruptions would have impacts on both sides of the border. To protect North America’s energy security and to continue receiving essential oil and gas products from an ethical source, there must be a safe and reliable transportation infrastructure. Biden has said he would kill the pipeline project as part of his plans to advance energy transition and broader climate change objectives, but he will also need to balance energy security, the need for jobs and a strong economy in a post-pandemic world.

The relationship between Canada and the U.S. has been through many challenges, such as the tough renegotiations of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that led to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The level of care that was taken to represent Canada during those negotiations must be replicated to ensure vital economic projects like Keystone XL can succeed.

Canada and the U.S. have an opportunity to work with the oil and gas industry to build energy security across our nations while tackling climate change in ways that countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia will not.

Our countries share a unique and storied relationship, forged by shared geography, economic ties and deep personal connections. The future of this relationship can and must be fuelled by an integrated energy market.

 

 

 

03_Leadership_Matters

 

LEADERSHIP MATTERS

Philippe Gervais, Managing Principal, Montreal

SINCE THE SECOND WORLD WAR, the person occupying the Oval Office has been referred to as the “leader of the free world” with reason. Whether it was at a G7, NATO or UN meeting, the president of the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, was the person leading large coalitions of democratic countries across the globe. Since the end of the Cold War, the power conveyed by the occupant of the Oval Office diminished somewhat, but was never so undermined as under President Donald Trump. His lack of respect and consideration for historical allies, and his bullying, win-lose approach to every issue, have created long-term damage internationally.

The popularity and respect the U.S. president has been able to wield in foreign countries have been key to successful worldwide outcomes. Would Trump have been able to deploy short-range nuclear weapons in Germany and the U.K. as Reagan did in the 1980s, which helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees? Could he have mobilized the coalition that went to war in the Middle East against Iraq as Bush did? Could he have steered the world through the vast economic reforms of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s that have created today’s global economy? The president’s political power and ability to convince and influence citizens both inside and outside the U.S. was lost in the last four years, and that created an important void.

Biden will be a godsend for Canada-U.S. relations after four years of unpredictability, misinformation and disrespect. From an almost continuously empty chair at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa (during more than half the Trump mandate), to spending only a few hours at a G7 meeting in Canada (Charlevoix 2018), Canada has never been treated so badly by a president. Can we expect the bromance of Trudeau-Obama or the Irish duets of Mulroney-Reagan? Time will tell, but most Canadians would settle for a normal relationship.

“There are no overnight solutions to the problems businesses and governments face together — from climate change, to income inequality, to the global pandemic — but Canadians can take comfort in the fact that an experienced, influential presence will be returning to the table.”

Of course, normal does not mean an absence of issues between our two countries. Keystone XL, softwood lumber and an expected, more protectionist “Buy American” positioning will be sticking points with the new administration. For Canadians, on the other hand, simply working with a president who approaches issues based on facts and political realities, and who seeks a win-win outcome, means we have a better chance of resolving our issues.

Building coalitions, working with allies and finding common ground are the anticipated cornerstones of the Biden administration’s approach. The president-elect has clearly demonstrated his desire to recapture the traditional role of the presidency on the world stage and once again take on the role of leader of the free world. This bodes well for many international organizations where the U.S. will once again play a leadership role in finding solutions instead of blocking progress. It also bodes well for Canadian businesses that have seen their key trading relationship clouded by uncertainty in recent years.

Everything about the U.S. is big — its military might, its economy and its production of greenhouse gases, which makes it a necessary voice at the head of the table of international institutions. World organizations and groups such as the suddenly all-important WHO, NATO, WTO and G7 have everything to gain with an engaged, reliable U.S. president.

There are no overnight solutions to the problems businesses and governments face together — from climate change, to income inequality, to the global pandemic — but Canadians can take comfort in the fact that an experienced, influential presence will be returning to the table.

 

 

 

04_High_Times

 

HIGH TIMES ON THE HORIZON?

Jenessa Crognali, Senior Consultant, Toronto

WHILE CANADA’S NATIONAL LEGALIZATION framework gave Canadian cannabis operators a first- mover advantage in 2018, our largest producers have their eyes on both sides of the border. Canadian companies like Aurora Cannabis and Canopy Growth are listed on U.S. stock indexes and have publicly communicated their U.S. growth strategies.

Restrictions on interstate commerce and access to financial services have limited the industry’s U.S. potential, but the election results have helped it inch forward. Days before Americans knew who their president-elect would be, five U.S. states approved cannabis-related ballot measures. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota are set to legalize recreational cannabis, while South Dakota and Mississippi are also set to approve medical use.

This is welcome news for a beleaguered Canadian industry that has seen its stock valuations plummet over the past 18 months. With this momentum, it may be tempting to think a Democratic president will advance cannabis policy enough to kick-start a renaissance here in Canada, but expectations should be tempered.

“We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” declared Biden’s running mate and now vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, on the campaign trail. Indeed, this is a promise baked into the Democratic Party’s 2020 election platform and congressional Democratic leadership is largely unified in its support on the issue of cannabis reform.

Biden, a former soldier in the war on drugs, has publicly endorsed reforms that prioritize decriminalization and a reasoned pathway for future legalization by granting states the authority to make their own decisions on the matter. A wrinkle for the Biden administration on this file will be the potential continuation of a Republican Senate majority and the GOP’s hesitance to support any legislation that might be claimed as a victory by a Democratic administration.

“A Biden administration provides a glimmer of hope, rather than a silver bullet, for Canadian cannabis companies holding out for American partnerships and market opportunities.”

While Canadian cannabis companies are listed on U.S. stock exchanges, they have had to focus on hemp-based CBD products because cannabis remains illegal federally. If this changes, it will open a new and relatively untapped market for the Canadian industry.

While federal legalization may be a distant aspiration, more immediate measures like the U.S.  SAFE Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to work with cannabis companies without retribution, or potential steps to expand research access to the plant, are more immediate goals the industry should rally around.

Like most policy areas impacted by the U.S. election, the future of a cross-border cannabis industry remains highly uncertain. A Biden administration provides a glimmer of hope, rather than a silver bullet, for Canadian cannabis companies holding out for American partnerships and market opportunities. Until then, the search for high times continues.

 

 

 

05_America_First

 

AMERICA: FIRST AMONG ALLIES

Michael Stock, Consultant, Toronto

FOR ALL THE VAGARIES AND INCONSISTENCIES of Trumpism, one consistent cornerstone of the Trump presidency was a hawkish attitude toward China. Over the past four years, the president has drawn the two superpowers into a dance of bluster and economic retaliation for what he sees as the systemic and long-standing imbalance in their relationship.

Trump’s trade war has been characterized by aggressive tariffs and complemented by an unrelenting use of China as a scapegoat for the ills of America’s working-class and blue-collar communities. It has also, on its own terms, failed. America’s trade deficit has grown under Trump’s watch and the chill in relations has taken a toll on the American economy while China’s continues to chug along.

But Trump’s stance on China has always been more about posture than policy, and tariffs are simply the president’s wildly expensive version of a slap on the wrist for bad behaviour. While many expect a Biden administration to be less aggressive in its use of economic leverage to punish President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, we shouldn’t expect a total reset in relations — political or economic — anytime soon.

The reality is that one of the few positions on which Americans agree, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began, is that China cannot be trusted and must be reined in. Biden will not lose out on the opportunity for an easy foreign policy stance that, unlike EU trade or relations with Israel, can unify, rather than enflame, the nation.

So, what can Canadian businesses expect from a Biden presidency when it comes to China? Well, unlike Trump, whose personal views of the country define his approach to the relationship, Biden will not have the leeway to bring his longstanding dovishness on China to the White House. Instead, Biden will do what he has always done: leverage his relationships with allies to great effect, and “build tall fences” in our communal backyards, when it comes to the areas of intelligence, technology and trade.

“Americans have made it clear that they still want their trade and diplomatic efforts to benefit themselves, not their allies. But after four punishing years of fending for itself vis-à-vis China’s encroachment, Canada is lucky to have an ally keen on working together again — even if it is on their terms.”

Canada will be one of the first stops on this tour and Canadians should expect a new spirit of co-ordination among western allies when it comes to issues like foreign investment, the moves of state-owned enterprises, and big players like Huawei and TikTok. At a time when our own relationship with Beijing is strained nearly to the breaking point, the prime minister and his team will be particularly calculated in their response.

That said, an improved Sino-America relationship would not necessarily benefit Canadian business. On the contrary, any gains made by American exporters in a reformed trade relationship would almost certainly come at the expense of Canadian producers, especially when it comes to agriculture, seafood and energy. But on the whole, in Biden’s foreign policy we can expect a departure from “America First” to “America: First Among Allies.”

We need to avoid a Pollyannaish view of what that will mean. Americans have made it clear that they still want their trade and diplomatic efforts to benefit themselves, not their allies. But after four punishing years of fending for itself vis-à-vis China’s encroachment, Canada is lucky to have an ally keen on working together again — even if it is on their terms.

 

 

 

06_Social_Dilemmas

 

SOCIAL DILEMMAS

Hunter Knifton, Consultant, Toronto

“YOU’RE PROBABLY LESS CONFUSED right now if you spent the last 6 months looking at Facebook than if you spent it looking at polls,” tweeted New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose on election night at 3:10 a.m. ET, expressing the bewilderment that millions felt as election results trickled in.

While many polling companies have rushed to their own defence to explain the gap between their projections and the final results, one thing is clear: a different story was being told on Facebook, and political parties, businesses and other entities that rely on understanding public opinion are remiss to ignore it.

“Facebook has been the dominant social media platform for years now. But the U.S. election results provide a jarring reminder of how removed our traditional media operators and pollsters still are from the story on this channel.”

While a narrow sector of journalists, consultants and other educated readers may have removed Facebook from their daily schedule, it is still by far the most widely used social media platform in Canada, the United States and worldwide. Importantly, it’s a platform where provocative conservative voices like evangelical Christian Franklin Graham, President Donald Trump and media commentator Ben Shapiro dominate the conversation.

Facebook is hosting an influential and far-reaching conversation, and organizations that care about public opinion would be imprudent to ignore it. But if engagement on the largest social media site skews conservative, why did the polls skew liberal? Consider the following explanations:

  1. Individuals participating in polls do not know their preferences as well as we assume; or
  2. Pollsters, political forecasters and mainstream media still have not learned how to account for these audiences that are vocal on Facebook but are less willing to participate in an interview or poll.

The first explanation, in which a survey respondent says Biden is their preferred candidate, but then votes for Trump, is already being addressed by companies and political campaigns. Smart organizations have recognized the disconnect that often exists between an individual’s stated preference and their revealed preference, and are opting for research methods that produce a voter’s true leaning, such as A/B testing advertisements.

The second explanation has potentially much larger implications as organizations are realizing that the data they have always relied upon is not only insufficient, it is unreliable. As such, they must expand their research methods to fully understand public sentiment. A political forecaster properly using Facebook engagement as a variable in their election model would have been successful in 2020, a fact that should be kept in mind for businesses trying to predict public opinion and consumer behaviours. This election showed that organizations must leverage new sources of data to accurately predict and reflect what people are thinking.

Finally, media organizations will likely follow suit as they think about ways to identify and amplify these previously under-reported-on audiences and perspectives. This creates opportunities and threats for organizations that are revered or abhorred by these right-wing groups, as these groups are in the spotlight and will likely drive mainstream media conversation more substantially than ever before.

Facebook has been the dominant social media platform for years now. But the U.S. election results provide a jarring reminder of how removed our traditional media operators and pollsters still are from the story on this channel. On both sides of the border, the next four years will be a race to catch up or be left behind, to be part of the conversation or excluded from it.

The Open Playing Field for “Tribes” in Canadian Media

WHEN AMERICAN BLOGGER and dot com executive Seth Godin wrote Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us in 2008, he created a manifesto for leaders seeking a voice in the digital era. Touching on philanthropy, entertainment, politics, government, and business, Tribes makes a stirring case for the value of leadership and the role technology plays in bringing like-minded people together. Contemplating the seemingly omnipresent role of then-nascent platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist, Godin observed that tribes were no longer a local phenomenon, with the Internet effectively eliminating geography and creating new opportunities for leaders and followers alike.

Along with the tools used to connect people, Godin observed that, “there are now more tribes, smaller tribes, influential tribes, horizontal and vertical tribes, and tribes that could never have existed before you.”1 While this proclamation is equally relevant today, information technology has evolved significantly enough to warrant an updated look at the relationship between online platforms, leadership, and the political movements that surround them.

With Canadian newspaper outlets and broadcasters confronting slumping ad revenue and regularly reporting layoffs, newer alternatives are claiming space with disruptive business models. Godin’s calls for innovation and entrepreneurship have been answered in the Canadian media landscape, but the emergence of new voices has raised significant questions about journalistic principles.

The rise of “alternative” outlets is occasionally used by traditional media operators to suggest that their industry is under siege – that something less reliable, potentially dangerous, is on the rise. Protection of high-quality, reliable information is essential, but no one medium, outlet, or news brand has ownership of the truth. To best assess the impact of disruptors in Canadian media, it’s first important to discuss the various mediums being used and avoid amalgamating them, where possible.

There are independent outlets, like the the Capital Daily in Victoria or the Halifax Examiner that have built promising bases of subscribers based on in-depth local reporting and investigative, long-form journalism. A broad range of niche or industry-specific subscription outlets provide insights to subscribers, from The Athletic covering sports to The Logic reporting on the innovation economy. Individual columnists are using Substack newsletters to independently publish and monetize their own commentary. While these business models and presentation formats deviate from traditional newspapers, they generally maintain common objectives: to provide trusted, informative, and independent reporting and commentary that serves the public interest.

The goalposts shift when we look at more ideologically-driven news brands, like PressProgress and Passage on the left or Rebel News and True North on the right. These outlets are known as the “grey media” for their blurring of conventional lines between journalism and advocacy. They present different content and hold themselves to different standards, but can be contemplated alongside one another for their shared purpose to provide red meat to a specified base of like-minded readers.

Ideological or not, grey media outlets are capable of ground-breaking reporting. PressProgress has been repeatedly cited by the likes of the Toronto Star, Canadian Press, and the National Post as a resourceful investigative outlet. Its mandate, however, does not only seek to entertain or inform, but to influence. There is no pretence of impartiality, but an expectation of fairness remains.

02-Rise-of-Grey-Media-2 (1)

“Heretics are the new leaders. They are the ones who challenge the status quo, who get in front of their tribes, who create movements.”

— Seth Godin

Grey media outlets have done what their traditional counterparts have failed at; they’ve created a sustainable model for news and opinions on the polar edges of the Canadian political spectrum. Sun News Network, launched in 2011 to provide a broadcast format for irreverent conservative commentary, could not survive on the airwaves, but the connective capabilities of social media have allowed prominent ideologues, including former Sun News Network personalities, to maintain viable business models in online formats.

The third and most concerning information technology development in our online ecosystem is the rise of disinformation campaigns, which present a distinct threat. Conspiracy movements, most notably QAnon, are rapidly increasing their following on online message boards, centred around hatred, misinformation and a shared distrust of establishment political figures. While movements of this nature would previously have been too obscure and disconnected to matter, message boards like 4chan and reddit have given them the opportunity to build communities. This trendline has consequences.

This past July, Corey Hurren, a military reservist and QAnon conspiracist was arrested for crashing a pick-up truck through the gates of Rideau Hall in Ottawa, with an alleged intention to assassinate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.2

South of the border, earlier this month, the F.B.I. revealed a plot from conspiracy theorists to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and put her on trial as part of a broader effort to, “instigate a civil war”.3 One of these days, the outcome will be tragic.

Facebook has responded by pledging to remove all pages, groups and Instagram accounts associated with the QAnon conspiracy movement. This is a necessary development, but a micro solution to a macro problem. As long as content is ranked based on its ability to generate strong reactions (and resulting ‘clicks’), hate and conspiracy will maintain an inherent advantage. While Godin forecast the promising role the Internet would play bringing people together, he could not have seen where this would ultimately lead: the commoditization of rage and paranoia.

So what does all this mean? The rapidly-shifting environment presents new and growing challenges for Canadian politicians, readers, and businesses seeking to access truth and in some cases, amplify their own voices.

For starters, online literacy has become increasingly important. While our mainstream news outlets do not have ownership of the truth, they have traditionally provided facts and opinion that fall neatly within the confines of our mainstream political dialogue. It’s important to repeatedly ask the essential questions around why a piece is being published, the motives of its publisher, and the sources that it references.

These questions are not new, and certainly not unique to any one medium, but evidently, not enough readers are asking them. This August, South-Surrey White Rock MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay retweeted a QAnon tweet that highlighted a 2009 interview of George Soros with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, then a Financial Times reporter. The tweet read that the association “should alarm every Canadian,” alluding to anti-Semitic undertones.

Findlay apologized for the tweet, stating that she only subsequently learned that the source promoted hate and conspiracy theories.4 This apology is easy to dismiss if not for the fact that it’s conceivably true. A recent Pew Research Centre report showed that only a quarter of adults surveyed could distinguish between statements of facts and opinion.5 Of all the consequences posed by the rise of grey media and dark web entities, the blurred line between news, opinion, and blatant disinformation is most concerning.

The second challenge is understanding the influence of digital outlets, and the extent that they reflect a meaningful segment of public opinion. The loudest voice in the room is not necessarily the most resonant, and social media has distorted our perceptions.

Godin writes that heretics are the new leaders. “They are the ones who challenge the status quo, who get in front of their tribes, who create movements,” he says.6 But the business of a powerful online outlet, tech company, or band does not require the same broad-based appeal as a national election campaign. Brash, alarmist voices may get clicks, but do not necessarily shine a light on public opinion.

02-Rise-of-Grey-Media-3

“Of all the challenges posed by the rise of grey media and dark web entities, the blurred line between news, opinion, and blatant disinformation is most concerning.”

Understanding the difference between virality and relevance is creating challenges for leaders. In a confounding end to a short-lived tenure as Conservative Party of Canada leader, Andrew Scheer lectured Canadian voters that, “the mainstream media bias in this country has never been more obvious,” pleading viewers to, “check out smart, independent, objective organizations… like the Post Millennial or True North.”7

While it’s easy for moderate Canadians to roll their eyes at the sour grapes behind these comments, grey media outlets present a practical dilemma for political leadership. No longer small enough to be ignored, but not large enough to justify pandering to, they yield massive clout with small, but vocal segments of the population. The challenge that leaders will increasingly face will be bringing together these enthuisastic “tribes” of supporters without being hostage to them or overestimating their influence.

Godin decreed that, “organizations that destroy the status quo win. Whatever the status quo is, changing it gives you the opportunity to be remarkable.”8 And we have seen the status quo in Canadian media turned on its head. We have left-wing voices, right-wing voices, and downright maniacal voices that would have been confined to street corners with megaphones in previous decades, all emerging with communities of followers.

But it would be a mistake to assume that all businesses who have built subscribers and followers alone will have lasting influence on public opinion. Just as changing technology and public expectations have allowed outlets to attract communities, improved education and more interventionist social media policies will again shift the playing field for media operators. Stability is an illusion, even for disruptors. “We still assume the world is stable, still assume that Google will be number one in five years, that we’ll type on keyboards and fly on airplanes,” said Godin. “And we’re wrong.”9

No matter how many donations, subscriptions, or hateclicks a given outlet can generate, its path to lasting influence will be won or lost based on the quality of its content and the trusted relationship with its readers. Long-term viability will be for those who can make something bigger, who take a small community and thrust its voice into relevance, rather than reinforce it in an echo chamber.

Disruptors in Canadian media need to do more than simply generate clicks. Tribes may survive by focusing on their followers alone, but it takes a coalition to make a difference.

[1] Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 4[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/7/7/canadian-man-faces-weapons-charges-in-attack-on-pm-trudeaus-home[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/opinion/facebook-gretchen-whitmer.html[4] https://twitter.com/KerryLynneFindl/status/1299789957205078016[5] https://www.nationalreview.com/news/study-most-americans-cannot-tell-fact-from-opinion/[6] Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 11[7] https://twitter.com/AndrewLawton/status/1297701439465234432[8] Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 35[9] Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 16

Purpose of the Corporation

THE COVID-19 CRISIS has revealed a great deal about the character of humanity. It has demonstrated the extent to which people can come together, and it has laid bare the systemic inequalities within our current economic structure and social fabric. As the world looks to governments to lead through a pandemic, corporations are also being asked to assist in tackling the inequalities that have bubbled up to the surface, in order to create a ‘new’ normal.

The public looking to corporations to support societal reform should come as no surprise. There have been discussions happening for quite some time on how to modernize capitalism by changing the purpose of the corporation. A movement is afoot that views the role of business as something different from previous generations – instead of simply focusing on profits or value for shareholders, corporations are increasingly expected to contribute positively to all stakeholders.

For a corporation’s purpose to truly broaden in this way, it must support efforts to address the challenges faced by its stakeholders and the communities in which it operates. Indeed, the drive to rethink the purpose of the corporation is fuelled by the public’s desire to have business assist in overcoming global challenges such as climate change, wealth inequality, systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a whole new level of responsibility thrust upon business. The days in which a corporation could simply focus on financial metrics, such as margins, productivity or profits, are over. A business now needs to evaluate – and correct when needed – its impact across a whole suite of social concerns, such as the environment, racism, poverty, gender equality, and more.

With these enhanced responsibilities comes an expectation of concrete and authentic action to tackle such important matters within the organization itself. In addition to monitoring and improving a corporation’s impact internally and externally, business leaders are now being compelled to speak out on these matters publicly. The assumption is that when an individual, organization, or government falls short of the public’s expectations regarding a certain social question, business will ‘call out’ or cut ties with the party, or exert some other type of pressure to influence and encourage ‘better’ behaviour and outcomes.

These three layers of the enhanced responsibility business faces are interlinked. A business must use the levers of its impact on communities, the globe, and society; its internal practices which can hinder or advance important and needed social reforms; and its capacity to influence others; all at the same time. As recent weeks have demonstrated, it is a grave public relations mistake for a corporation to speak out in support of an important social cause if it has not yet taken internal action to advance the objectives of that same cause.

 

map2_REVISED

Business leaders will undoubtedly need support in meeting their new responsibilities and in ensuring their organizations are purpose-driven and focused on contributing positively to all their stakeholders. The newly created Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation will offer support to Canadian businesses and organizations as they work to redefine, strengthen, and advance the scope of their purpose and values through their operations, their impact on all their stakeholders, and their ability to influence others to do the same.

It will not be easy for business to meet the evolving expectations placed on them by the public and civil society. Nevertheless, the movement afoot makes it clear that change is on the horizon for capitalism one way or the other. With change comes uncertainty. What is certain, however, is that the purpose of the corporation is more important than ever. Let’s hope that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will provide inspiration for business leaders to embrace a new approach to corporate leadership which would be a big first step towards modernizing capitalism and helping humanity overcome the challenges facing this generation.

Now that’s a purpose worth fighting for.