Posted tagged ‘political communication’

Political communication

September 6, 2012

Long term – that should probably be ‘long-suffering’ – readers of this blog may recall that, back in 2009 when I was still working in Ireland, I bemoaned the apparent inability of the then Irish government to make a case to the people for the steps it was taking to repair the economic damage that had afflicted the country. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen in particular was politically tongue-tied, and the lack of any coherent narrative eventually persuaded the people, for better or for worse, that the government did not know what it was doing and had to be removed; and they voted accordingly in early 2011.

Political communication matters, because politics is in part about the discussion and analysis of ideas. It is also about people and personalities, but these become most effective when what they are communicating engages the electorate.

One of the reasons, I would argue, why current economic problems have been so intractable across the developed world is because those who have the levers of power seem to be so bad at explaining what they are doing with them, and why. Even Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 by the American people on a wave of enthusiasm for his message, appeared to lose the ability to engage the people once in power and, no doubt, worn down by the sheer awfulness of the problems that needed to be solved.

But such communication can be done. And if President Obama has been less than perfect at being the national (and global) narrator, his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, las night showed in his Democratic Convention speech (which you can watch here) that he is the master politician. He may have taken Obama a step closer to re-election; and perhaps to finding his own voice.

The importance of good (political) communication

January 25, 2011

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.

Communicating gargled messages

September 17, 2010

I understand that the noise and bluster around Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland earlier in the week is now being called ‘Garglegate’, another of those annoying ‘gate’ suffixes, but this time referring to the Taoiseach’s statement that the problem with the interview was that he was hoarse. It has taken me a bit of time, but I have now listened to the whole interview online; and I know I’m swimming wholly against the tide here, but I cannot see what the fuss is about. Yes, he mis-spoke twice, once referring to the Good Friday Agreement when he meant the Croke Park Agreement, and once saying legislation was ‘in place’ when he meant it was ‘in preparation’. In each case he corrected himself immediately. And I’d have to say, if I were to be condemned every time I suffered a slip of the tongue I’d now be on my way to hell.

And the rest of the interview? Well, it was boring as could be, and delivered in a monotonous tone; but with no disrespect to the Taoiseach, that’s how he does interviews, and I don’t think this one was very different from many others he has done. I can’t even say that he sounded particularly hoarse, and if he did it absolutely didn’t matter.

So why did Brian Cowen apologise? Or rather, what exactly was he apologising for? In fact, in listening to his apology I wasn’t wholly sure that he knew what he was apologising for. A storm had broken out around the interview, and he was probably advised he could calm it all down by apologising for something or other. However, it didn’t make one bit of sense to me.

The problem is, I think, that our senior politicians have totally lost the plot as regards political communication. This is not just Brian Cowen’s problem, it is also Enda Kenny’s, and for my money even Eamon Gilmore doesn’t ring the bells. We have a political class that simply doesn’t know how to inspire trust and confidence through well-judged communication. I believe that this is also why we are still being questioned in the global media about our economic performance – not because the economic policies are necessarily deficient, but because we are so bad in our national advocacy in support of them. Furthermore, two years into our financial crisis the Taoiseach has, despite calls from absolutely every commentator, not addressed the nation. The only politicians whose communication skills I rate right now are Brian Lenihan and Pat Rabbitte.

This country has several very skilled communications experts. Politicians need to take lessons.

A new form of political communication?

July 20, 2009

This, admittedly, is not hot off the presses: Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate for the US Republican Party, is stepping down as Governor of Alaska. Having indicated that she would not stand again in the next election for governor, she announced she would also be stepping down from the office before the end of her term. Of course, who runs Alaska is not perhaps a major concern of many people in these parts, though if (as some believe) her decision tells us something about her ambitions for the US presidency, maybe it should be. But in any case, as someone who was last year thrown into the global political limelight and who may yet remain there, she is a politician who may merit the occasional glimpse from here.

Right now I am wondering about her official announcement of the resignation, which you can read here. After the slightly disarming opening with ‘Hi Alaska,’ the text meanders through a selection of comments and observations (frequently punctuated with exclamation marks, dashes and quotes), and you have to travel quite a distance before you discover the purpose of the statement. On the way you have to negotiate passages such as this:

We are doing well! I wish you’d hear more from the media of your state’s progress and how we tackle Outside interests – daily – special interests that would stymie our state. Even those debt-ridden stimulus dollars that would force the heavy hand of federal government into our communities with an “all-knowing attitude” – I have taken the slings and arrows with that unpopular move to veto because I know being right is better than being popular. Some of those dollars would harm Alaska and harm America – I resisted those dollars because of the obscene national debt we’re forcing our children to pay, because of today’s Big Government spending; it’s immoral and doesn’t even make economic sense!

And after telling us that ‘only dead fish go with the flow’ (or rather, ‘Nah, only dead fish go with the flow’), she proceeds to declare that she will step down as Governor.

Of course, Sarah Palin made her name as a rather folksy, tell-it-as-you-think-it anti-intuitive politician, and for a few moments in 2008 some thought that this could be a formula that would catch on. Let us leave aside the troublesome interviews she gave initially (someone suddenly pushed into an unexpected national role can be forgiven for that), and consider the more mature politician she should by now have become. Politics is all about communication, about doing it in a manner that engages your audience and that stimulates and inspires. It would be foolish and elitist to argue that this needs to be done in a style more typical of a university lecture theatre; but yet it needs to be done in a manner that impresses. If you cannot immediately make your audience understand what the purpose of your statement is, you have lost them.

For myself – and I hope there is nothing elitist in this assumption – I cannot believe that Sarah Palin has a future as a national or international politician. But I am also acutely aware that right now there are many politicians across the world who seem not to understand the significance of political communication, and who are not in particular using this tool to give confidence and a sense of purpose to communities in the current economic conditions. I suspect that the pace of economic recovery will, at least in part, be driven by a sense of confidence, and politicians have a key role in stimulating that. This is, I believe, an issue that needs to be tackled here in Ireland as elsewhere.

Mind you, I cannot help being beguiled by the thought put forward by Julian Gough in Prospect magazine, that Sarah Palin is in fact a modern poet. He suggests:

A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake.

So as regards the quote from Palin’s announcement above, perhaps it needs to be read differently, perhaps so:

We are doing well! I wish
you’d hear more from the media
of your state’s progress and
how we tackle
Outside interests
– daily –
special interests that
would stymie our state.

Yes, I like that much better.

Talking our way out of the crisis

June 8, 2009

Here is an interesting news item from yesterday, referring to the political crisis in Britain in the aftermath of the local and European elections and the future of Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Labour MP Tony Wright said that while Mr Brown was a “clunky communicator”, he was a “towering figure” in the aftermath of the financial crisis.’

Well yes, a ‘clunky communicator’ (an expression I’ll remember and use). What the statement doesn’t acknowledge – indeed, what it denies – is that you can’t really be a ‘towering figure’ in politics if you have difficulty communicating the message. Politics is all about ‘the message’, the ability to persuade the public and key decision-makers in industry and public life that you have a strategy and that this strategy will make a difference. A tongue-tied Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg would probably not be remembered today; or Winston Churchill, if he had been unable to express to his people the sense of determination and courage that carried them through the dark days of 1940 and 1941. In politics, communication is not an optional extra, it is everything.

In Ireland, we have similar issues to address. I would argue that the losses suffered by Fianna Fail in the elections are to a major extent about communication. I suspect that by and large the government has the right policies. But it has not so much been bad at communicating them, it hasn’t really tried at all. I cannot begin to understand why, in Ireland’s worst crisis since independence, the Taoiseach has not been addressing the nation on television and radio, indeed several times. We need to know where we are going, and why it’s worth making sacrifices, and how the government is going down this hard road with us, and what the rewards will be at the end. We don’t need to read that from Dail reports, or from newspaper accounts of party meetings – we need to hear it directly, addressed to us. Without that, all we see and feel is the pain, and all we want to do is lash out at whoever is inflicting that.

There are big lessons to be learned from Barack Obama, who has understood all this really well, and who is a master at having a good message and communicating it skilfully. Here in these islands, and for that matter in Europe, we seem to have lost sight of this. We had better catch on quickly, for widespread popular anger is a very dangerous thing.

Political communication

February 5, 2009

So there we are, the government here has announced the measures it is taking to start clawing back the deficit in public finances. On the whole – though I regret the cut in overseas aid – I think the approach is correct. What I am less certain about it whether they are communicating the message effectively. The presentation yesterday by the Taoiseach in the Dail (parliament) was curiously low-key, and I cannot help thinking that the government would gather a lot more momentum if he were to make a direct address to the nation on television; the seriousness of the situation certainly warrants it.

Of course the real basis of political success is having the right policies; but almost as important is the ability and willingness to communicate the vision effectively. This is particularly important when people are being asked to make sacrifices. This is 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]

It is unlikely that the government has just asked for the last sacrifice we must make in order to recover our economic and social stability. It seems to me to be important that it takes much more visible steps now to communicate the strategy and the vision, and to hold out the prospect of ultimate recovery and success in a way that people can grasp and respond to. Otherwise we risk failure in our national efforts because nobody has stirred the imagination and determination of the people.