Or why the Sky Palace photos will haunt the UCP for a long time

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The Missive” on Aug.15, 2021. Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/ or access background info and special content with a paid subscription.

A lot has been said about the release of photos this week depicting the Premier and a few of his least popular UCP cabinet ministers “dining” on the patio atop the federal building in Edmonton outside the infamous Sky Palace.

Turns out that someone, obviously with a telephoto lens, caught the gathering on one of the hottest days of the summer yet. The temperature reach 28 degrees C in Edmonton that day and most of us were just trying to cool down, but apparently, this crew decided to gather outside in the sweltering heat with no shade, but with plenty of wine, whiskey and some sparkling water. Who thought this was a good idea?

Along with the premier were Health Minister Tyler Shandro (vote of non-confidence from 98 percent of doctors), Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon (vote of non-confidence via Defend Our Parks and Protect Our Water signs) and Finance Minister Travis Toews (stealing teachers pensions guy).

Well, I think they’ll likely regret this moment on the patio, for more than a few reasons.

Let’s analyze just how bad this is for Jason Kenney and the UCP. Some have speculated this is just another grievance to add to the list of things people are already angry about. They have said this will fade from memory quickly since the COVID-19 restrictions are being swiftly eased and this rule-breaking will soon be moot.

So, why do I think this image is probably one of the most damaging news stories to hit the UCP since they took power in 2019? It’s not necessarily for the reasons you may think.

Yes, it’s clear the ministers and Kenney were not physically distanced according to the rules IF it was simply an outdoor gathering. If they were sitting that close, they should have put on masks.

However, they have admitted it was a “working dinner” which allows them to remove their masks but suggests it could fall under the rules of outdoor dining. According to those rules, it must be only four per table and you must be from the same household. There’s really no escaping the fact they were breaking the rules. This photo starts here but goes beyond this.

They’ve broken rules before with Aloha-gate. The difference is this time they captured it in a photograph.

This is significant because of something called the “picture superiority effect” which is well-understood and utilized in education. This is “the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.” The theory has been well-researched and is heavily employed in advertising.

Without getting into too much of the science, “pictures are processed in several channels instead of one, giving the brain a far deeper and meaningful encoding experience.” This is a concept we understand and work with every day in web content design.

The widely quoted stat is “If you hear information delivered verbally, you are likely to remember about 10 percent of that information three days later. Add a picture, however, and your recall rate will soar to 65 percent.” I can’t find the original source of these numbers, but if you know, please leave me a comment!

The thinking is also that images are more impactful in your memory because they stimulate more emotions than words. This is problematic for the UCP going forward into the next election. And not just because of the flagrant rule-breaking.

The photo of these dudes, in their crisp white shirts and tablecloth, dining on a rooftop overlooking the city is striking on so many levels.

For one, throughout history, the wealthy and the powerful have sought the highest point on the landscape and claimed as a way of exerting power and looking down on others. It’s a way of showing visible contempt and superiority. Take a look at the long view shot from the set of three images. The photographer knew what they were doing to include this shot.

The photo from what is a fairly chunky-looking concrete building also represents a seige mentality that goes back to medieval times. Think of the many images of ancient castles towering over peasants. The protection of the upper class, fortified by concrete, ignorant of the poverty and suffering of the lower class.

In Medievil times, the rich and powerful built fortresses high above the peasants so that uprisings like this could be more easily quelled. The Sky Palace may provide similar refuge for Jason Kenney. By Attributed to Philippe de Mazerolles – Bibliothèque nationale de France Manuscript Français 2691 folio CCXLVI v [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=345860

You couldn’t stage a better photograph conveying a message of “out of touch” than this series of photos of the five men (a woman does appear in one of the photos) looking like the cast of “Mad Men.”

While the rest of Alberta is struggling under COVID-19 restrictions as well as economic woes that started before March of 2020 and will go beyond the pandemic, here are these guys, being served wine and sparkling water from their perch of power. A perch paid for by taxpayers.

Likely, Kenney realized how bad it looked which may be why he referenced the fact that the whiskey wasn’t the most expensive – a “budget” choice he said, trying to limit the damage somewhat hilariously. He understands this much—he screwed up getting caught in a compromising position.

When Kenney moved into the spacious offices during the pandemic, he must have known it wasn’t a great look. But this is a guy known for stepping on the proverbial rake.

He just announced a reopening plan to get back on track in time for Stampede and now this. He’s his own worst enemy.

If the diners thought it was hot on the patio that June 1st, they better get used to it. This image is going to be appearing a lot and will likely bring heat to their faces for a long time to come.

The anger here goes beyond COVID-19 rule breaking. It’s more akin to the anger that erupted after it was discovered that Allison Redford had decided to build herself a sky palace in the first place.

The building represented the corruption and abuse of power that ultimately cost Redford her job. It was the embodiment of arrogance and the elitism.

That’s why this image, already a powerful communication tool, is going to be tough to shake. It screams, “above the law.” Expect to see these photos resurface many times between now and the election.

Drew Barnes is now calling for Kenney’s resignation. Rachel Notley is calling for an apology and both are probably incorporating these images into their campaign plans as we speak. They will be damaging every time they appear, no matter how often. Mark my words.

Jody MacPherson is a professional communicator, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and lives in her own little sky palace in the Beltline. She prefers bourbon, though.

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