110 days. 81 addresses to the nation. What PM Trudeau's COVID-19 messaging reveals
OTTAWA -- It became a scene most Canadians could recognize: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerges from Rideau Cottage and descends six steps to a podium, notes in hand. This was how the prime minister chose to speak to the country, day in and day out between March and July. In his morning updates, COVID-19 aid packages amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars were unveiled and public health advisories were driven home, but what else did Trudeau have to say?
CTVNews.ca has analyzed the 81 national addresses and following media availabilities that Trudeau held during the 110 days between entering a 14-day self-isolation, on March 12, to his June 29 announcement that, going forward, he would only convene the Rideau Cottage updates when he had big news to share.
The day after Trudeau entered quarantine on account of his wife Sophie having symptoms that were soon confirmed to be from COVID-19, the prime minister began what quickly became a daily routine: addressing the nation from Rideau Cottage, his family’s temporary home on the grounds of Rideau Hall.
Those morning addresses, mostly from the grounds of Rideau Hall, became a seven-day-a-week ritual, with few days off in the first two months. Then, as the public health crisis entered into the initial phase of reopenings, the routine was eased, with no press conferences on weekends and eventually only a few times a week.
Analyzing the transcripts of his English-language remarks from all those Rideau Cottage updates, as well as the few offsite, CTVNews.ca identified his commonly used phrases and terms, as well as his go-to nouns and adjectives, before asking political communication experts and a linguist to assess the words he was using to deliver his messages, and whether they were effective.
WHAT WORDS DID HE USE?
CTVNews.ca’s analysis found that the most repeated phrase was “right across the country,” followed by variations of “keep Canadians safe.” Others that topped the list included “make sure,” and “move forward.”
Speaking to the use of “keep Canadians safe,” former lead speechwriter for Trudeau, Jeni Armstrong, said she thinks it was a great choice.
“It's simple, it's direct, it appeals to the kind of worries that we all have about our families… It’s memorable and like I said, it is the kind of reassurance that I think people were seeking especially in the early days,” said Armstrong, who is now an instructor with the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University after working as the director of communications for Finance Minister Bill Morneau and helping to author the Liberal Party’s 2019 and 2015 federal election platforms.
Other phrases that appeared often included: “long-term care”; “continue to work”; “public health”; “social distancing”; “people need”; “staying home”; and “coming weeks.”
CTVNews.ca also searched for the frequency of other key words, which may not necessarily be the words said the most. The word “recognize” came up 183 times over the 81 addresses, “virus” was said 127 times, “parliament” got named 108 times and “unprecedented” was said 63 times. Further, “racism” was said 53 times, “China” was found in the transcripts 45 times, and “budget” just nine times.
Armstrong said Trudeau has a personal verbal habit where he builds formulas for responding to questions, which could explain the frequency of the word “recognize”—which often was how he started an answer to reporters’ questions: “we recognize…”
“He'll often say—and this has been true for a number of years… ‘Canadians expect us to ABC, and we are doing just that.’ It's kind of a formula that he has,” she said.
Trudeau’s go-to verbs, in order of frequency: “need”; “get”; “make”; “continue”’ “know”; “keep”; “ensure”; “want”; “think”; and “help.”
As for adjectives, he most often said: “many”; “sure”; “safe”; “able”; “right”; “important”; “different”; “new”; “Canadian”; and “possible.”
Linguist Shana Poplack told CTVNews.ca that Trudeau’s word choices show he wants to evoke he is in charge and has things under control.
“If this is the message he's trying to relay, those words are consistent,” said Poplack, who is the director of the Sociolinguistics Laboratory at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in Linguistics.
Poplack also said what stood out to her were the phrases that didn’t crack the top of the list of things Trudeau said, despite them being so frequently said in society writ large these days, including “in these uncertain times,” and “the new normal.”
“That does not tie in with the message that he's trying to get across,” she said, suggesting it’s possible he didn’t want to highlight the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That's why we see “ensure,” we see the word “safe,” reappearing... He also has to convince us that he's on top of it,” she said.
BUILT UP LEXICON OF PHRASES
What the frequent repetition of these and other phrases indicates, experts said, is that Trudeau and his relatively small team of speechwriters had developed a dictionary of key phrases to reinforce and repeat in his prepared remarks. The messaging was first built into his speeches, but after their near-daily repeating, they became a reflexive part of his vocabulary when responding to questions, too.
Poplack said these are referred to as “fixed expressions,” some of which are commonly used by all, others are created, as seen with terms for aid programs to establish a clear message. The use of such phrases can be seen across political lines and in past prime ministers’ speaking habits as well.
“For Paul Martin it was ‘let me be clear,’ for Stephen Harper it was ‘obviously’,” said Garry Keller, vice president at StrategyCorp and a past adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Armstrong said the repetition of the COVID-19 benefit-specific phrases also helped to build up familiarity with new programs. “Emergency Response Benefit” — referring to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit of $2,000 a month to out of wok Canadians — was in the top-five most said three-word phrases, and “wage subsidy” was in the top five two-word phrases spoken.
“What he's attempting to do there is to get people familiar with the name of any program… When you're working on that, repetition is your friend,” she said.
STRUCTURE SUITS THE PM
Strategic communication professional and political commentator Scott Reid said that the formula of “political communication by dint of news conference” has become a go-to form of communicating COVID-19 crisis updates around the world and across Canada, where provincial premiers have all taken a similar approach.
The format plays to Trudeau’s strengths, Reid said, contrasting the PM’s comfort and skill delivering on-message remarks without relying on rote responses to the communication approach of other world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, who Reid said failed at being consistent in his messaging and shut down his routine of regular press conferences long before Trudeau did.
“A crisis such as this, which has created a made-for-television daily news conference, it's almost perfectly built for his [Trudeau’s] talent set and instincts because he has a preternatural sense of self… He's extraordinarily conscious of his presentation and of his representation to the public, and that serves him extremely well in this situation,” said Reid, who also worked as an adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin.
Keller noted that opting to keep Trudeau’s addresses to the high-level details and letting a cadre of ministers follow after him to take reporters’ more detailed questions also meant that Trudeau was usually out of the spotlight by midday, rather than facing reporters and opposition MPs multiple throughout the entire day.
“It quite frankly has worked for them,” said Keller, adding that all of the opposition parties found it challenging to compete with.
BOOST TO APPROVAL RATING
The more frequent prime ministerial appearances also had positive returns on his approval ratings, according to CTV News’ pollster and Chair of Nanos Research, Nik Nanos.
“What I'll call the ‘relentless chain of press conferences’ … they've effectively done a bit of a reset on his brand,” Nanos said. “There's been a complete reset on Justin Trudeau’s personal brand. His brand is now strong again— it's not as strong as the honeymoon [phase]— but it's strong and the Liberal numbers are strong.”
Nanos Research asks Canadians weekly whether they feel the various federal party leaders have the qualities of a good political leader, and Trudeau’s trend line shows that Canadians surveyed are viewing him more positively since March than they have in the entirety of the last four years.
KEY MOMENTS LIKE 'SPEAKING MOISTLY'
These routine speeches also provided several key moments over the initial four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, from Trudeau’s infamous “speaking moistly” slip-up when describing how the coronavirus can transmit through droplets, to his conspicuously long pause when asked about Trump's handling of anti-racism protesters in the United States.
While the combination of “speaking” and “moistly” was swiftly removed from Trudeau’s lexicon, Armstrong said even when such moments inspire mockery, they are generally well-received.
“That ended up being really funny at a time when people needed to laugh right? And he's, he's very much able to laugh at himself in moments like that,” she said of Trudeau. She cited the first time that he spoke directly to children as another notable moment.
“Kids are an overlooked constituency… They're not even spoken to directly by people in power very often. But they are feeling and experiencing this moment, in a very, very profound way, and I as a mom, and as a citizen, and as a communicator, I really love that he acknowledged that,” she said.
WHY THE ADDRESSES ENDED
By the time Trudeau said he’d be cutting down his regular press conferences, the announcements he was making had already become incremental and small, while the questions he faced were predominately about non-COVID-19 news.
The political communication experts CTVNews.ca spoke with largely agreed that, while the near-daily addresses were key in reassuring Canadians that the federal government was on top of the rapidly unfolding crisis early on, continuing to come out and face reporters was having diminishing positive returns for the prime minister as other big news stories began to bubble up, notably the ongoing WE Charity controversy.
Another reason some suggest could explain why Trudeau’s team opted to wind down what some critics call “the morning show”? Canadians had begun tuning them out.
“I think that they've rightly recognized that should there be a second wave, should there be a need to start communicating again on a daily basis in a way that was happening in March for example, they don't want to kind of burn the goodwill and the listening potential of the audience by continuing to speak every day if there's not something new to share,” said Kate Harrison, vice president at Summa Strategies Canada and Conservative political commentator.
WILL SEE THIS FORMAT AGAIN
Going forward, the experts interviewed said to expect the format to resume should there be a new resurgence in the virus’ spread.
Reid said that if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the public and the media has come to expect the prime minister will be front-and-centre.
“This is now how it is done. It has quietly become a matter of consensus among political leaders, media, public audiences, that this is how this gets prosecuted, and so it will recur, and it will overwhelmingly benefit political leaders who are capable of commanding the podium and follow those very simple rules of being thematic, being consistent, demonstrating empathy,” Reid said.
Methodology: For this project we used the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) in Python to run a word frequency and N-gram analysis on the transcripts. An N-gram analysis counts the occurrences of two or more words together. The code stripped the transcripts to leave only those words spoken by Trudeau in English.
Analysis completed by Rachel Aiello, Phil Hahn and Mahima Singh. Visuals and infographics by Mahima Singh and Jesse Tahirali. Edited by Kieron Lang and Sonja Puzic.