Who knows? Some lessons for PR people

While the vast majority of Australians are neither engaged with the current election campaign, nor very enthusiastic about who wins or not, the passionate have one question: “who will win?”

The blog has been asked – on a rough estimate – about 20 times in the past 20 days who it thinks might win. Forced to rely on gut feeling – a very unreliable guide – the blog subscribes to the conventional wisdom that the gap Labor has to bridge is too great and the Tories will win. Perhaps by more than people expect. Sorry – didn’t mean to mention Tories in conjunction with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull but so far his campaign is a direct rip off from a combination of the Cameron and Goldsmith campaigns in the last UK general election and the London mayoral election.

Of course Crosby-Textor (apologies Sir Lynton for just using your surname – as we will eventually have to do if you get George Osborne elected PM and you get elevated to the Lords) which is advising on the current Australian campaign no doubt think that if it worked with the Tory campaign once it’s worth pursuing again. We will come back, however, to the London mayoral campaign where it didn’t work.

Based on the polls, and extrapolating the Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight probability models to which the blog has frequently referred over recent years, there is about 56% chance that Bill Shorten might get up – but that is probably a nonsense and a reminder that Silver’s probability figures are based on a much bigger data set than we have. In contrast the bookies are offering 7 to 2 on Labor and not far off evens for the Liberals. The bookies are probably closer to the odds than the Silver probability tables. However, the inimitable Tim Colebatch had a very good article in The Age (17 May 2016) contrasting where the punters were putting their money on individual seats and the realities of what swings in the electorates were actually required.

In the last few days, however, the blog has wondered a bit about the conventional wisdom. The Government has moved very early into the attack dog fear mode (supported by the Murdoch media of course which shows that Rupert does hate Labor more than he hates Malcolm). This shift might be a way to frame the rest of the campaign but could also be an indicator that they are worried. It also risks adding further to the disillusionment with Malcolm as he does become a bit of a Tony Turnbull.

But as the blog said earlier: who knows?

However, the recent events do have some implications for PR people – particularly those in politics. It is understandable that what works once is worth a punt the second time. The London mayoral election, where the Tories (Sir Lynton didn’t work on the campaign but one of  his UK business partners did, although that may have been for either deniability reasons or the fact that Zac Goldsmith was for Brexit and Crosby’s major client was not) did everything they could to depict the Labor candidate as a supporter of terrorism and extreme Islamic fundamentalism. David Cameron joyfully joined in only to be regarded as being so ‘off’ and over the top by many commentators that his parliamentary attack on Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn was regarded as embarrassing. The Tory campaign didn’t work because the demographics and the candidate made the approach untenable. So – you might like your favourite campaign techniques particularly when they worked well in the past – but you need to be careful that the situation in which you apply them hasn’t changed. Khan did come up with a good line by the way. He joins a Tory Minister as UK Pakistani  heritage holders highest political posts. Both are the sons of Pakistani bus drivers. As Khan said: “You wait for ages and then along came two sons of Pakistani bus drivers at the same time.”

Secondly, if you have to change tack try to make sure the new tack isn’t too different from the core brand. The government is doing a so so job of letting the dogs of war loose while ostensibly keeping the PM above it. In the old days the blog often used adjournment debates in the Victorian Parliament to set stories running. If they took root the Leader could be statesmanlike (no female leaders back in that distant past) about them. If not silence was appropriate. The problem for Malcolm is that dishing the dirt and the nasties so early might detract from his appeal to those who thought better of him and add to the increasingly rapid decline in his approval ratings. So much, one might say, for the new adult, intelligent discussion with the public. On the other hand, as the economist would say, fear and loathing have always played well with Australians from the fear of the Russians in the 19th century onwards through Asians, Asian communists, refugees and terrorists. Nevertheless, lesson two applies – don’t trash the brand for perceived short term advantage.

And what about lesson three? That’s easy – minimise risk and monitor issues but don’t be afraid of some creativity. In this case, when you know the audience is disengaged and sceptical, try to inject some hope and excitement into the communication. David Cameron was happy to keep repeating the rote of jobs and growth and we have a plan but then he’s not as smart as Malcolm who could have a narrative instead of Abbott-like mantras. As long as you don’t announce it, as the awful advisors Julia Gillard had suggested, just be yourself. It’s called authenticity and the basic lesson for all PR is that you build trust by aspiring to authenticity and practising transparency.