When tactics take over from strategy

The most common error in developing communication strategies is to confuse tactics with strategy – an error that PR students learn to avoid while highly-paid political advisers have ensured the error is endemic in contemporary politics.

Indeed, you can easily see the problem on any given day in Australian politics. While political campaigning is supposedly becoming more professional – and has become so in areas such as data mining and target market identification – the day to day hurly burly of politics is so awful in communication terms that it is hardly surprising that people look at Parliament and politicians with contempt and that the annual Edelman Trust Barometer rates Australia at 21st place (out of 28 and just 4% ahead of Russia) for trust in institutions. As veteran journalist Mungo McCallum, says: “Australian government has in recent years, become debased – opportunist, secretive, poll-driven, fixated on short term political gain and unwilling to engage in serious issues when (as is always) they interfere with its internal wranglings. It has been depressing and demoralising, and the public has responded by branding our parliamentarians a bunch of untrustworthy go-getters, obsessed with their own well-being rather than the public good.” (John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations 8 February 2018)

In the years the blog taught strategy development, based on what it had learnt in decades of practice, it began presentations by referring to an old philosophical tool – begin to define something by defining what it is not.

For instance objectives recast as strategy are not a strategy. So when the Turnbull Government says it has a strategy of Kill Bill Shorten they are actually focussing on an objective rather than a strategy. The real strategic question is how? The second thing strategy is not – is tools which implement a strategy. The third thing it’s not is a bright idea. If you wanted a better example of the Turnbull Government and the second and third errors just look to the bungled media leak tactic about a police raid on the AWU. The Minister, Ms Cash, lost an adviser and looked less than convincing in denying any knowledge or involvement in the episode – although, on reflection, the Minister frequently convincingly demonstrates lack of knowledge about her portfolio. Whatever, the whole episode stank of someone waking up one morning and saying “I have a great idea to Kill Bill” and forgetting to do a risk analysis.

It is also worth studying why strategies fail as that sometimes tells you more than looking at why strategies succeed. The roots of failure are generally: unclear objectives; unclear definition of the problem (Killing Bill is a good idea in theory but that ignores the problem that trying to distract from your failures by focussing on your opponent’s shortcomings are best left behind in the schoolyard); confusing objectives with strategy (see above); choosing the wrong tools (in the political strategy game this is almost inevitably using mass media as the first resort); ignoring sociological/demographic reality (when the blog was a student more than 50 years ago a leading student politician who later became a Federal Cabinet Minister broke down near the Essendon Airport and tried to get assistance – complaining after that people out there didn’t have phones!); being ill-informed, arrogant, big-headed or short-sighted (fill in any example that springs to mind – perhaps starting with Peter Dutton or the belief that the whole world is crying out for company tax relief.)

If readers want more information on how to develop strategies and avoid these pitfalls, they can look at the Lectures and Presentation section of this site. However, there are many ways to get better at strategy. Perhaps the most important is looking at framing theory. This is particular relevant in issues management strategies where whoever frames the issue controls it. This is not just a matter of slogans, such as Jobs and Growth, which fail on several fronts not least because everyone from Fairfax’s Adele Ferguson to the Fair Work Ombudsman has provided overwhelming evidence of systematic and endemic underpayment of workers. Moreover, in people’s lived experience the slogan is oxymoronic.

Traditionally, as the cognitive scientist and philosopher George Lakoff has shown in his book Don’t Think of An Elephant, conservatives were pretty good at defining the frame. That success lasted from the 1980s until quite recently when the realities of everyday life made it clear that Margaret Thatcher’s mantra – there is no alternative – was no longer convincing to the voters who flocked to Jeremy Corbyn. For instance, large proportions of UK voters thought Corbyn’s plan to re-nationalise the railways, the water industry and other things were less Armageddon and more a very good thing.

The other part of the obsession with tactics is that it leads politicians into relentless negativity. Unfortunately for our PM, he’s not very good at it, but then few people are. If you deconstruct a day’s rhetoric from politicians throughout the country you will find that they overwhelmingly spend their time criticising their opponents – rarely with the wit of a Whitlam (“Tiberius with a telephone” for instance) or an F.E.Smith. In contrast their positive comments about their own policies are usually pre-packaged and evidence free.

Now the conventional wisdom is that the Kill Bill Strategy is working – on the basis of frantic background briefings to the Gallery and one opinion poll which narrowed the gap simply within the margin of error. But Bill Shorten, who after all is hard to warm to, has been shrewd strategically and tactically by focussing on areas where people are suffering and trying to shift the emphasis to policy. His emphasis on the quintessentially Australian Fair Go (not sure how it plays with new migrants but presumably they learn quickly as they are exploited) is an example of good framing because it reinforces the public’s feelings about what’s wrong with their lives.

Arguably keeping the focus on policy is the best framing possible and the beginnings of a sensible strategy. However, negativity can be combined with this if it is done creatively. Years ago, when the blog worked in politics, our team pre-empted a major Government policy speech by releasing the day before a list of the Government’s broken promises. It got lots of publicity and meant the Premier had some unpleasant questions to answer. If the Federal Opposition wanted some high-flown negativity they could just trawl through all the Senate committee hearings, ANAO reports, and some other sources and assemble a case that the government is administratively incompetent and wasting billions of our money (which challenges the Coalition’s supposed strength in ‘competence’) then put it all into a hefty-looking publication which can be waved around in front of cameras for several months. After that just keep hammering it whenever you promote your policy and point out what the wasted money could have been spent on. This avoids the tendency for each individual scandal to become another piece of ephemera in the daily media grind and taps into the reality that negative campaigns are most effective when they combine some high-minded outrage, with some more sorrow than anger framing, and something tangible rather than more rhetoric. And it couldn’t be any less effective than some of the current tactics.