The importance of good (political) communication

Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.

Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.

At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, ‘We the People”: The “Modern” Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period’, Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.

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7 Comments on “The importance of good (political) communication”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It’s hard to be enthused when your government sees the answer to it’s problems being you fucking off out of the State. Talk about dusting off a tried policy. One has being going since the 17 century. No damn womder the rest of Europe think the policy makers are useless lazy scumbags. As per the little talking-to that Higgins revived from José Manuel Barroso.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    Indeed (political)rhetoric is a civic art by definition (Cicero), it has known a pejorative connotation especially in some quarters but it is most recently enjoying a revival particularly due to the Obama phenomenon (crucially supported by digital communication technologies, still as Quintiliano argued (Rem tene verba sequentur)behind good communication there must always be good arguments

  3. Al Says:

    Well said

    We also need a dose of parrhesia to supplement the rhetoric. I have to admit to being impressed with Brian Lenihans speech on Sunday.

    But maybe the ear that is listening has to mature also. How much more going forward, smart economy, innovation, etc have we heard already.
    We create the political class as much as the individuals themselves who particiapte do…

  4. cormac Says:

    I suspect Micheal Martin has it – he did a good job of persuading his FF colleagues and the public of the importance of the smoking ban, in defiance of both the smoking and drinking lobby…

    • Al Says:

      I would be wary of making comparisons (in public)
      Mr Martin did some serious lifting for Lisbon II, but Irish political rhetoric is debased by appealing to its audience.
      We want to hear Cicero but we wont vote for him, we vote for Gombo who speaks to our local concerns, our immediate attention at a cost of the longer game.
      In saying that, I thought that Mr Lenihans speech on Sunday had clear distance between it and any other speech made by an Irish politician recently.

      It isnt just in the oration, it is also in the presentation of the situation we are in, of the real challenges as distinct from the distractions.
      I cant find a copy of it to link to at the moment.

      Ps I am not politically aligned to any party.

  5. Teresa Says:

    The ability to deliver a speech to the public in an oratorical style will be of great benefit to a politican in their career.   But communicating integrity, understanding, empathy and sincerity to the people, is the real gift of good political communication.  This type of political communication is not generally prevalent from Irish politicans but it is what is required in these harsh times.  Though not a star orator, Brian Cowen expresses himself well but he failed to connect with the people.  Michael Martin is professional and persausive but it is Brian Linehan who recognises the importance of meaningful content, effective body language, and eye contact, all of which make for a  heartfelt and genuine style.                  

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