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Politics: It’s just smart media management

Politics: It’s just smart media management
by Frances Meadows

On April 20th 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would inevitably face a recession. What made this announcement different to the many others made by the Government on a daily basis was that the Opposition used it as a chance to accuse Kevin Rudd of pulling the wool over the public’s eyes on yet another issue. The Opposition believed that instead of talking about the impending recession, the Government should have been answering the questions surrounding the plight of the asylum seekers off the West Australian coast.

Mr. Turnbull was quoted by WA Today as saying “He’s under pressure on that so he’s uttered the “R” word...to create a distraction,”

“But this is Mr Rudd; he’s a master of the politics of media distraction.”

While some may argue that the announcement of the recession was purely a coincidence and a by-product of the news-saturated environment that we live in, it is easy to agree with Mr Turnbull.

Throughout his 2007 political campaign and subsequent time as Prime Minister, Mr Rudd has demonstrated just how well he can use media management to his advantage.

“Rudd is a keen student of the news cycle and carefully times his announcements,” said Alana Mann, a Public Relations lecturer at Sydney University, when asked her opinion on Mr Rudd’s knowledge of the media.

Using the unforgettable “Kevin 07” slogan that was brandished across everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers the Labor Party forged an historic victory in the 2007 Federal election. Shortly before the election, then-Assistant Treasure Mr Peter Dutton called the approach taken by Mr Rudd as “a load of crap” and likened the slogan to a promo for Big Brother.

Politics is a game and gone are the days when being photographed with a cute baby or shaking hands with pensioners in your local electorate could help swing elections. Media teams are needed to help guide politicians on what to say and when to say it.

What makes politics different to other arenas where media teams are involved (for example, in the entertainment industry), is that in politics these teams need to be heard (via the politician) and not seen. This point is clearly demonstrated by Richard Stanton in his book Media Relations: “An argument could be put that a politician presenting individual legitimacy and policy veracity through a spokesperson loses the right to be seen as the main actor”. If a politician was to approach the media via the use of a spokesperson or if they got a PR person to speak on their behalf, they would lose their credibility.

A detailed and closely-executed media management plan is nothing to be ashamed of. As Mr. Rudd’s success in the polls has shown, in politics, it’s all a part of the winning strategy.

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Too much of a success...

Yes, Frances, there is a lot to be said for politicians working in tandem with strategy-driven media management plans. As you say, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Part of being a politician is about how you engage in opinion management; the more people you convince the further you go in your career. At the same time, caught in a barrageof rhetoric, the voter is either dazzled or disillusioned – one more blow to democracy.

Today's political communication is about timing, control, knowing your audience and managing your representation in the media. Questionable as this process is, Rudd has it down to perfection.

The game-show of life

It's all good fun really. An election is way more interesting than Home and Away. Watching them strut, dance and fall on their face. And we get to chose the winners, too.

The role of good journalists is to cut through this make-up. Take for example Turnbull's claim that Kevin lost his temper over not having a hairdryer. Turnbull pretends that the issue is that a prime minister lost his temper. That's not true. Kevin's popularity would increase if he was seen as human and manly. The real question is whether he uses a hairdryer - an effiminate, weak affectation in a man.

Swimming in a media world

I agree with some of what you say but it's too simple just to say politics is all about smart media management. Some additional thoughts...

Policy does actually matter and while both sides of politics agree on the basic structure of our polity (no revolutionaries here) and many of their policies coincide there are also differences. Take health care as one example; industrial relations, or private schools are others. There are policy differences and different policies make a real difference in people's lives. So politics is also about policy and policy can even change votes. Now policy is made within a sea of opinion polls and media influences and it is sold and criticised within that sea. So media management does matter here but except at extreme ends of the electoral cycle (eg Howard's desperate pork barrelling and rhetorical flourishes in 2007) it is not everything. Indeed in the case of Howard no amount of spin could sell his industrial relations policy or disguise the tiredness of his government. He went beyond spin and modified the policy but the differences between his policy and Labor's still cost him votes.

Second, it is not all about the politicians managing the media, or responding to the media. Because politicians make policy, all those with an interest in policy formulation get involved in trying to create pressure on politicians through the media: either directly or perhaps by feeding opposition politicians with media friendly pre-packaged information or spin. (Perfect example this morning as opposition politicians parroted off-the-shelf private health fund PR across the airwaves.)

Various interests play this game but the cashed up corporate vested interests are the ones best placed to play it. I believe I read recently that journalists in Australia are outnumbered by over three to one by PR people, and a recent study has shown that something like 80% of stories in the media are sourced directly from PR.

So while politicians and their staff might well spend an inordinate amount of time trying to manage and manipulate the media, remember that a lot of this behaviour comes as a response to the way that not just the media reports on them, but the way others use the media to influence them.

In the 21st C the media is a sea politicians and others both swim in and draw sustenance from. As reporters and media outlets grow fewer this sea is more and more likely to resemble a cesspit, but the PR droppings of the politicians will be only one component of it.

Richard: Good to see you again, Tony!

A winning strategy?

Frances, you make a good point: a successful politician needs a good media team.  I believe this is a weakness in our democracy. Only the major parties have the money to employ media teams. Independent politicians or parties trying to create a third voice in politics are overwhelmed by the polished media teams of the two major parties.

One of the reasons many people are becoming disillusioned with our democracy is that we only get to choose between two leaders at every election. Often these leaders are only promising more of the same. It becomes impossible to have any real change.

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