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Hill Dispatches: PSAC fights an 'absurd choice'

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The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has gone into the theatre of the absurd business.

The union has launched a social media campaign, featuring an "absurd" giant, grey squirrel, which is designed to engage Canadians in a conversation about this country's fiscal deficit and the future of public services.

In a video posted last Friday, we see PSAC's giant squirrel-of-the-absurd invade what looks like a Service Canada office and wreak havoc, preventing a government worker from serving a young woman holding a baby.

"We think the government is offering Canadians an absurd choice between a good economy and public services," PSAC vice-president Patty Ducharme says. "The point of this campaign is to get Canadians talking about a third option: a strong economy with good public services."

Starting a conversation

PSAC decided to go the social media route to get beyond one-way, newspaper, television and radio advertising. This new campaign is not so much about giving Canadians answers as it is about encouraging Canadians to participate in the conversation.

"This government wants to shut down discussion," Ducharme observes. "Look at the way they're shoving through legislation. We think Canadians want to have their say, and we want to help make that possible."

The origins of the campaign came out of the public sector union movement's frustration with what it sees as constant attacks on their members from politicians and the mainstream media.

"It seems like this government and some in the media want to make public servants the scapegoats for a worldwide economic crisis," Ducharme complains. "We don't think that's fair."

Particularly galling to public sector workers is the all-too widespread view that most public servants do very little real work and then collect fat pensions when they retire young.

The average federal sector pension is $24,500 per year, Ducharme points out; and the 120,000 PSAC members in the federal public service do important work, she argues.

"They protect our borders, collect revenue, represent Canada overseas, and provide assistance to people when they are most in need and most vulnerable, such as when they have lost their jobs," Ducharme says. "I cannot remember the last time I heard a federal government politician publicly acknowledge the important work public servants do!"

A PR firm with flair and imagination

When PSAC decided that it was time to shake up the debate and get Canadians involved, it kicked around a lot of ideas. In the end, one idea really held the union's attention -- the notion of absurdity, the "absurd" idea that if Canada is to get its financial house in order it must take an axe to public sector workers and the services they provide.

"We think that is a ridiculous, dangerous and false choice!" Ducharme says. "The government is now threatening a 5 per cent to 10 per cent cut in the public service, and that worries a lot of Canadians, not just our members. We want to give voice to those Canadians."

To make the social media campaign a reality, the union put out a call for professional public relations help. After a competitive process, it chose to work with the Toronto office of the international firm Evidently.

That medium-sized company has offices in South Africa, Britain, Australia and Canada. It has done work for major corporate clients, as well as socially-oriented campaigns. It is the firm behind the anti-cancer "Dear 16-year old me" campaign, which aims to convince teenagers not to engage in behaviours that could lead to malignant melanoma (a form of skin cancer) in later life.

The video Evidently produced to launch the PSAC social media campaign looks a bit like a sketch you might see on This Hour Has 22 Minutes or Saturday Night Live. It takes an edgy, creative approach and doesn't hit you over the head with a literal message.

In its irreverent, non-literal style the video seems obviously targeted to youth. That makes sense since young people are suffering most from the current downturn. In the public service, as elsewhere, young workers are the last hired and first fired.

Will need every tool in the box

The campaign is only four days old but PSAC staff reports that reaction so far has been good. They hope that people who click on the campaign will share it with others on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

PSAC will continue to use other, more traditional means of getting its message out, beating the drum right through until the next federal budget that will likely come in March 2012.

PSAC and its fellow public sector unions have a big public relations challenge. They will have to use every tool in their toolbox to galvanize public opposition to a majority government that seems to have made up its mind about so many things, without regard to facts, evidence or, as one Conservative minister put it, "statistics."

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