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The influencers: How Ottawa uses popular online hosts to get its messages out

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Florence Lavoie is 22 years old, works at home producing and distributing French language videos on YouTube. It’s lightweight, slice-of-life stuff, mostly: tips on makeup, dating, shopping and diet (one September post ranking lip balm flavours picked up 34,000 views).

She’s been posting videos online since age 10. Her bubbly, upbeat on-camera persona has earned her north of 85,000 subscribers — enough to make YouTube her full-time job, enough to bring her to the attention of the Government of Canada, which hired her in March to produce and distribute a short online video warning young people about the dangers of opioid abuse.

“There is an agency from Montreal that contacted me and talked to me about the project,” Lavoie said. “So already I was interested in sending a nice message to the young people that follow me, because there’s a crisis and people can get involved and touched by that.”

A ‘new era of celebrities’

The Public Health Agency of Canada paid Lavoie and four other social media influencers $17,700 in total to raise awareness about the dangers of opioid misuse. Lavoie’s video earned her $6,600.

“It’s like the new era of celebrities, if I can say (that). People look up to us and they’ll take our advice,” she said.

Nice work if you can get it — and you can get it if you try. The Trudeau government has been actively courting people with significant online audiences to help it communicate its messages to the Canadians who tend to tune out traditional government communications strategies.

Florence Lavoie holds forth on her YouTube channel. “Younger people don’t really watch television anymore,” she says. (CBC News)

Lavoie said the logic behind the recruitment of social media ‘influencers’ like her is obvious to anyone under 30: young people live online — and they don’t like being preached to by older ‘experts’.

“Younger people don’t really watch television anymore and don’t really connect to ads like that because they don’t really speak to them,” she said.

Her opioid video took the form of a conversation between herself and her 15-year-old brother. In it, they talk about the mortal risks involved in taking unknown drugs and strategies for coping with an overdose. No lectures, no screeds against recreational drug use — just a little brother getting some potentially life-saving advice from his older, cooler sister.

“We spoke about the crisis in a way that was natural,” Lavoie said, adding that when she took the federal government’s contract, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to be telling young Canadians “oh, don’t take drugs, you’re just going to die and go (to) prison.

“I didn’t want to share a message like that because even though drugs are not good, well, some people are going to be taking some and you just want to tell them what are the risks.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada hasn’t limited its influencer outreach to the youth market. The agency spent $4,000 on sponsored content published on the website UrbanMoms, which targets Canadian parents with both heavy and light takes on the problems of raising a family (recent posts included pieces on nipple care and allergy-proofing your house). The site reaches just under 100,000 Canadians every month.

Natalie Milne, VP of Maple Media. “If you have a very specific target audience that you’re trying to reach, influencers are an exceptional way of reaching that audience,” she says. (CBC News)

“It was a good fit because UrbanMoms already has the established audience in that demographic that the government was looking to reach. So they were trying to get the message out to parents who have kids who are about to embark on their teenage years,” said Natalie Milne, vice president of the Toronto-based digital publishing company Maple Media, which manages the UrbanMoms site.

“If you have a very specific target audience that you’re trying to reach, influencers are an exceptional way of reaching that audience and they deliver the message in a really authentic and organic voice.”

All sponsored content on Maple Media’s sites is identified as such, said Leslie McCormick, the company’s campaign manager.

“We put a statement at the bottom of the content that says that this piece is sponsored by Health Canada, in this instance, but the opinions are our own. And we always include links out to the client’s site,” McCormick said.

‘Established credibility’

Two other federal government departments — Global Affairs and Public Safety — report having hired online influencers to get the word out.

Public Safety has spent $181,028.20 on social media influencers since 2015 as a part of its public relations campaigns promoting things like protecting sensitive personal information online.

The government is still using ‘traditional’ TV talking heads as a spokespeople — but now, those spokespeople are also helping to expand its social media footprint.

Public Safety paid $133,000 to HGTV home reno expert Bryan Baeumler for his help in promoting the government’s Flood Ready campaign, a program to encourage Canadians to flood-proof their homes.

“Social media influencers have access to large audiences, where they have established credibility and authority on issues that matter to Canadians,” said Tim Warmington, spokesperson for Public Safety Canada.

“By partnering with influencers and leveraging their reach, we can seek to engage with Canadians while making efficient use of public funds.”

Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa says the federal government’s use of online ‘influencers’ in its communications strategy comes with some risks. (CBC News)

Not everyone is convinced that influencers always offer the best means of getting government messages to hard-to-reach audiences. Elizabeth Dubois, a University of Ottawa academic who studies the political use of digital media, said there’s a risk of fracturing the audience for essential government information.

“By selecting particular influencers, we’re essentially selecting parts of the Canadian public,” she said. “Which means that the parts of the Canadian public who connect with those influencers get the information, and everyone else doesn’t.”

The ‘bot problem

And Dubois warns that any government use of online influencers has to make certain, in an age of weaponized online disinformation, that the people being hired truly are who they say they are — and are being read by actual people.

“If we’re selecting influencers based on their reach but their reach has actually been manipulated by a bunch of ‘bot accounts that have been created to inflate how important they seem, we end up accidentally investing resources in something that’s not actually going to pay out because it’s not real people following those influencers in the first place.”

Others say the trend toward delivering government messaging through online influencers is only going to accelerate — because it works.

“I think it’s about time,” said John White, a branding expert with Social Marketing Solutions in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Government always kind of lags behind. I think that government is slowly catching on and seeing the success that the business world is having with influencer marketing, seeing how they can implement it into their messaging to move their audience.”

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Ottawa sets monthly record for total COVID-19 cases with 99 new cases on Friday

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Sixteen days into October, Ottawa has already set the record for most cases of COVID-19 in a single month.

Ottawa Public Health reported 99 new cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa today, and three more deaths linked to novel coronavirus.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health had reported 108 new cases of COVID-19, but there is sometimes a lag in COVID-19 case reporting between Ontario and Ottawa Public Health. On Wednesday, Ontario reported 39 new cases in Ottawa, while Ottawa Public Health reported 45 new cases.

There have been 1,511 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa in October, surpassing the September record of 1,413 new cases.

Since the first case of COVID-19 on March 11, there have been 5,908 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, including 301 deaths.

Across Ontario, there are 712 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Health Minister Christine Elliott reported 213 new cases in Toronto, 135 in Peel Region and 62 in York Region.

HOSPITALIZATIONS IN OTTAWA

One more person was admitted to an Ottawa hospital with COVID-19 related illnesses on Friday.

Ottawa Public Health reports 47 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19, including eight in the intensive care unit.

ACTIVE CASES OF COVID-19 IN OTTAWA

The number of active cases of COVID-19 increased on Friday.

There are 792 active cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa, up from 777 active cases on Thursday.

A total of 4,806 people have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19.

The number of active cases is the number of total laboratory-confirmed cases minus the numbers of resolved cases and deaths. A case is considered resolved 14 days after known symptom onset or positive test result.

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Ottawa mayor rejects possible return of Ottawa-Gatineau border checkpoints, ‘I really don’t think they work’

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Mayor Jim Watson does not want to see police checkpoints return to the five interprovincial crossings between Ottawa and Gatineau, saying “I really don’t think they work.”

Earlier this week, Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin told the Ottawa Citizen that police checkpoints could return to the Ottawa-Gatineau border at “any time,” with the final decision in the hands of the Quebec Government. Earlier this month, Dr. Brigitte Pinard of the Centre Integre de sante et de services sociaux de l’Outaouais said border checkpoints were “possible,” adding “right now, our message is to limit large gatherings.”

When asked by CTV Morning Live host Leslie Roberts about the possibility of police checkpoints returning to the Ontario-Quebec border, Watson said he did not think they worked back in the spring.

“There were so many gaps when the police were not there, and people just figured out I’ll go at an earlier time or a later time. We saw police officers sticking their heads in the car with no masks, so that was not healthy for those individuals,” said Watson Friday morning.

“It’s a costly expense when our police are stretched already to the limit trying to do the work, to have them set up at five different bridge points potentially 24 hours a day would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every month and I think the money is better spent.”

On April 1, Gatineau Police and the Surete du Quebec set up checkpoints along the Ottawa-Gatineau border to limit non-essential trips into Gatineau. Gatineau Police estimated the random police checkpoints between April 1 and May 17 cost the service more than $400,000.

Mayor Watson tells CTV Morning Live that the Quebec Government’s decision to move Gatineau into the “red zone” two days after Ontario moved Ottawa to a modified Stage 2 should help.

“We are a close relationship and when things happen in Gatineau there’s often a trickle effect over here and I think the fact that we’re both in the red zone, and Quebec of course is the worst hit province, at least levels the playing field for our restaurants and bars,” said Watson.

“I think in the past what had happened was our restaurants and bars would close and then the ones in Gatineau would stay open, and then people from Ottawa would go over there irresponsibly, in my opinion, and then come back potentially with the virus and spread it here.”

While border checkpoints would limit the non-essential travel across the Ottawa-Gatineau border, Watson says that’s not the way to beat COVID-19.

“The message is very clear, stick to your household. This is not the time to have an AirBNB party or a keg party in your backyard, or have 20 people or 30 people in for an engagement party. I know a lot of these get-togethers are important socially for people and emotionally, but we have to ask people to be reasonable and responsible, and this is not the year to do those kinds of things.”

Roberts asked the mayor if he would have a conversation about border checkpoints with Gatineau’s mayor.

“I had it the first go-around, but at the end of the day I also respect their jurisdiction and their autonomy. It is the province that would have to impose that, not the municipality,” said Watson.

“From our perspective, we don’t think it’s an effective use of resources. We want to continue to get the message across that we can win this battle against COVID-19 if we socially distance, we wear a mask, we actually follow the simple rules that are put forward.”

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Ottawa woman breaks 14-day quarantine rule to work at long-term care home: police

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OTTAWA — A 53-year-old Ottawa woman is facing charges under the federal Quarantine Act after Ottawa police say she failed to self-isolate for 14 days after travelling abroad and returned to work at a long-term care home.

Ottawa Police say information was received indicating that an Ottawa woman had travelled abroad. She returned to Canada on Sept. 26, so she was required under federal law to quarantine for 14 days, until Oct. 9

“The woman decided not to respect this order and went to work on Sept. 30 at a long-term health facility in Ottawa,” police said in a news release. “When management was apprised of the situation, she was immediately sent home. The facility immediately activated mitigating self-isolation and cleaning protocols and informed all persons that had been in contact with the subject.”

Police say none of the residents of the long-term care facility have tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of the woman attending work.

Ottawa police say this is the first person they have charged under the Quarantine Act during the pandemic.

The woman is charged with failing to comply with entry condition under section 58 of the Quarantine Act and cause risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm under section 67 of the Quarantine Act.

The maximum penalty for causing risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm is a $1 million fine and three years in prison. For failing to self-isolate for 14 days, she faces a $750,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Police did not release the name of the woman, nor where she worked. The woman is due in court on Nov. 24.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s office issued a statement following the announcement of the charges.

“Mayor Watson was disturbed to learn about the alleged carelessness of the individual in question. This type of reckless behaviour could have harmed their colleagues, and more importantly, the residents of the long term care home. We must all do our part to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

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