When in dire need

When communicators were in dire need – confronted by legislation or projects their bosses and clients opposed – there were some simple phrases and tactics they often fell back on. The problem today though is the extent to which they are now ineffective or just archaic.

The blog has noticed that variants of some of them are being increasingly used in Federal politics as the Government sinks further into chaos and the Labor Opposition, remarkably, seems committed to announcing progressive policies which would be considered mainstream in much of Europe (and even perhaps the UK) if not in Australia or the US.

But in terms of effectiveness and contemporary currency, sadly many of these variants have become empty and clichéd. The blog, for instance, can remember using the phrase unintended consequences to some effect some decades ago. Nowadays the phrase still has some currency because it can be used about any policy or legislative change from taxation to the environment you oppose. The advantage is that you don’t need to spell the consequences out – rather you leave it to the imagination of the message recipient as the best horror films do – even if these days the only people to take it seriously would be AFR reporters regurgitating business organisation platitudes.

What impact it has on the general public is moot but it continues to have some appeal because it does have some resemblance to general political campaigning around fears of the unknown. However, in this context it might be a bit subtle in an era when we are allegedly imprisoned in our houses terrified of going out for dinner because of Sudanese gangs. This messaging has a more visceral appeal than the rather intellectual and multisyllabic unintended consequences.

Playing God still gets some airplay. Religious people in politics probably think it is a righteous argument even if they dodge some of the theological problems it raises. Nevertheless, it can be used to argue that some intervention is unlikely to be successful because it assumes the perpetrator doesn’t have the power he/she imagines. It is particularly useful when opposing policies which are designed to alleviate problems – famine, diseases, poverty and so on – which require government spending and compassion.

Red tape is a favourite – in the sense that some legislative idea would embroil business or voters in red tape – which continues to have resonance. It is convenient because everyone is opposed to red tape even if, when the issue is framed differently, they are in favour of regulation which controls, for instance, pollution or food safety. The Abbott Government, copying the US, introduced a day in Parliament dedicated to a bonfire of red tape. It is easy enough to find legislation and regulation which is outdated but these are simply the framing around more significant targets.

One the blog hasn’t heard for years is that something could be put to nefarious uses. This is a relic of long gone Tories in suits and weskits railing against being soft on crime and, like unintended consequences, would not appeal to contemporary political party apparatchiks searching for more populist rhetoric. It was also, to be fair, often a mainstay of aristocratic British progressives and Labour types opposing government legislation which could be used to limit civil rights.

In a way the blog is sad about the demise of such tactics. They, although now clichéd, had a degree of intellectual appearance and rather more substance than the current PM’s use of fair go, fair dinkum and other Australianisms which were common in Bluey and Curley cartoons but not so much in modern Australia other than in Barry Humphries performances. One almost expects the PM to come out with stone the crows or fair crack of the whip next if not the Les Patterson type behaviour.

But the lack of authenticity (BTW you don’t claim to be authentic any more than you don’t claim to be cool – you just are ) is highlighted by the fact that modern Australians, influenced by US media or different national backgrounds, would be more at home with African American slang or colloquial European and Asian phrases.

Of course, the glib phrases are not the only modern techniques to oppose things. A quick report by an accounting firm or think tank can do the job with more credibility – particularly when the journalists reporting on it (with a few notable exceptions) fail to interrogate the assumptions and methodologies underlying the report even if a few of them do ask, if the results are inimical to their world view, who commissioned it.

And we must never forget that perennial favourite – the opinion poll with or without agreement set response questions. This continues to be a modern favourite which just keeps on giving headlines and social media coverage without anyone getting too bothered about sample size, question construction or – most importantly – why it was commissioned.

But in thinking about the past and current use of phrases and tactics – one can’t help but wonder what a commentator might reflect on, in a few decades time, about the growing number of contemporary social media variants.

It would seem, if the current literature is any indication, that Richard Dawkins’ prescient 1976 discussion of memes will be at the centre of that reflection.