Come in Spinner: Rudd and Abbott searching for PR’s holy grail

Throughout Australia – and the world – there are hordes of PR people, think tanks, politicians and others who spend their days and nights thinking about the holy grail of PR: how to frame issues, events, products and ideas in ways which set the agenda for debate and action.

Framing is PR people’s single most important, and most significant, activity. Framing – with phrases, attitudes or ideologies – sets the frame of reference within which the news report events and statements and how people see things.

At its simplest level it employs the use of words and phrases. Examples are the Bush-Howard phrase, ‘cut and run’, as a way of describing the otherwise sensible policy of getting out of Iraq. Similarly, when Christian fundamentalists stopped referring to their anti-Darwinism as ‘Creationism’ and started to call it ‘intelligent design’ they were re-framing their position hoping to change how you thought about it.

But words and phrases are really Framing 101, and if you don’t go beyond them, you end up boring people or opening yourself to ridicule. While there are many big policy things going wrong for Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott one of their current elementary mistakes is not moving on from Framing 101.

For the PM the framing phrase de jour seems to be, “I make no apology”, which apparently is supposed to convey toughness and determination. As it keeps being used to explain back flips and policy timidity the phrase lacks some effectiveness. For Tony Abbott the phrases do jour are “great big tax” and “too many people”.

Now a proviso is necessary here. When you just start to get absolutely sick of mouthing some political or product message, there is a slight chance that there are a few people out there who are just starting to notice.

The best example of a line which finally got through, was Andrew Peacock’s “as sure as night follows day” line during the interminable coronation (sorry election) campaign Bob Hawke inflicted on Australia. Peacock might not have won, but by the end of the campaign (when – in Mungo McCallum’s long ago description of a Liberal Cabinet Minister’s lengthy and boring speech – amoebas had evolved into sentient beings while it was going on) it was much closer than everyone expected.

Another struggle over framing was around Malcolm Turnbull’s (no relation) decision to stay on. The Liberals sought to frame it as evidence that they were likely to win the next election. The Government tried to frame it as evidence that Turnbull knew they were going to lose. Turnbull was smart enough to not only frame it in terms of a response to pleas to stay and help save the seat, but time it for a period in which it would attract limited attention and leave as many options as possible open.

On the other hand, after a week or so of framing by phrase alone, the commentariat are heartily sick of it and start complaining that you need a new line. The PM is at that stage now and Abbott may get there soon if he can be consistent on anything for a week or so.

In Rudd’s defence, “I make no apology” perhaps makes more sense than the election campaign catch all “working families” – conveying the sense of traditional nuclear families joined in legally-sanctioned wedlock. This one was probably a good way of positioning yourself as Howard-lite by excluding three quarters of Australian household formations (gays, lesbians, pensioners, retired, unemployed, single people etc etc). Although how much sense “I make no apology” makes depends on how you regard all the things for which he ought to make apologies.

Abbott’s “great big tax” might get some traction except the public regards all taxes as ‘great big taxes’ and reluctantly pays them. “Too many people” is also interesting because it raises some delightful questions about controls on population growth. Turning back alleged hordes of refugees is probably popular but controlling the population has some wrinkles – one child families, DINKIES, more contraception, abortion (round up the usual suspects) – which might be unpalatable to both the public and a Mad Monk.

The alternative is not just a new narrative as the commentariat allege. Moreover, as most modern media coverage is the antithesis of coherent and engrossing narrative, one wonders what they mean by the word.

Rather the alternatives are some more sophisticated versions of framing. Indeed, the Rudd-Abbott advisers might be well-served to suggest they make the leap to Framing 201 and read George Lakoff’s Don’t think of the Elephant (2005) or, better still, leap straight to post-graduate study and Robert M. Entman’s Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm (Journal of Communications 1992). Both are subjects to be re-visited by Come in Spinner on another occasion whether the advisers do or not.