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Peter MacKay’s Rocky Start

Peter MacKay is one of the front runners to lead the federal Conservative Party, and perhaps, until this week, the top front runner.

He’s got a strong political pedigree, a network of supporters and considerable experience. He knows how to play the game. But an ill-conceived tweet, followed by an even more ill-conceived shutdown of an interview by his communications staffers, have thrown the MacKay campaign into disarray.

It began last weekend with a tweet from MacKay’s personal account lambasting Prime Minister Trudeau for expensing the Liberal Party for yoga sessions and spa treatments while he was running for the Liberal leadership.

The tweet, which is still posted, landed with a thud and created a furor in the close confines of Twitter.

It followed a comment from MacKay that “I play hockey. Trudeau does yoga.” He told National Post columnist John Ivison that he would go head-to-head with the boxer Trudeau – “I’d rather fight him UFC rules,” he said. “Or on the ice – no headgear, no gloves.”

Strangely macho language for 2020, particularly for a party that needs to connect with urban and suburban women. The implications of all this are pretty clear – MacKay is a “man’s man” while Trudeau is a “girly man,” a feminized feminist.

But what happens on Twitter doesn’t always impact the real world.

Twitter is filled with hyper-skeptical media types and hyper-partisan hacks. MacKay wisely backed away from the tweet, saying in response to a question during an on-camera interview with CTV, “That was something that happened that I’m not proud of. I don’t have the opportunity always to vet every single thing that goes on that social media account and so we are going to do better.”

Then MacKay’s PR team leapt to his defence, even though he handled the awkward situation as well as anyone could.

“I think we’re done,” said one handler, stopping the interview. “You just went way over. I’m sorry,” said another to the reporter who was asking a question they should have anticipated. MacKay’s team hit the panic button while the cameras rolled, making the tweet a bigger story and extending it to television.

“She’s just doing her job, she’s a journalist,” MacKay protested to his team, but the damage had been done. Again.

Can Peter MacKay recover from this rocky start? Of course. In fact, he almost certainly will. He’s a veteran politician and people tend to forget these things as soon as the next “scandal” comes along. But the whole imbroglio is a reminder of how quickly public opinion can change based on one ill-advised comment – or tweet – or one interview misstep.

Politicians like MacKay are skilled at dealing with the media. They know how to bob and weave to avoid trouble and get their message across. Businesspeople don’t tend to have that much experience with media, and the consequences of an interview gone wrong can be profound.

It pays to be prepared.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.