Probably the hardest job for a PR adviser – whether the client is a politician or a CEO – is to get them to mouth the phrases: ‘I don’t know’, ‘I was wrong’ and ‘I need to think about that’.
This is less because of accepted PR practice about control and consistency but more about the nature of the media and market beasts with which they are dealing.
Tony Abbott’s problems with ‘truth’ might end up like Kevin Rudd’s problems with bars – a political advantage – but it seems unlikely. But it is possible to have some sympathy for him. Partly because he is a member of religious group which has made an art form, and built a profitable industry, on the back of fear of infringing the subtle distinctions between forms of sin and types of utterances. Partly also because Barnaby Joyce is partly right. When the Romantics such as Rousseau obsessed about unrelenting truthfulness they overlooked the fact that liberal, tolerant societies survive with the assistance of a web of white lies which reduce conflict.
But his real sin is to forget that there are no silences in politics – that politicians have to have an opinion on everything – and that those opinions must not break any of the fundamental rules of political reporting.
The first of these rules is that no member of any political party or government may ever have a different opinion from another member. Editorials may spruik the virtues of debate, discussion and freedom of opinion but straying from deadening consistency is a recipe for inviting reporting about splits and conflict.
Second is that you are never allowed to say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I have to think about that’ or ‘I was wrong’. The sin in this case is that being intelligent and considered is to be a weak, indecisive self-confessed failure. Bertrand Russell once said that any man (the usage being typical of his life) who never changed his mind was a fool. When Keynes was once asked why he had changed his mind he replied that when the facts changed he changed, and asked in reply what his questioner did in the same situation. But in political reporting and discourse both approaches are forbidden.
Third rule is that nearly all print political journalism is fundamentally about prediction of the future rather than reporting what has happened. When Sir Winston Churchill died Life magazine flew a team across to the UK. They flew back developing film, writing articles and laying out pages on the way. When they got back they produced a typical Life special but it was irrelevant because the funeral had already been on TV. Similar reportage has been similarly irrelevant ever since, the problem compounded many times over by digitisation and the Web. So when an event, like Tony Abbott’s TV interview occurs, the most important effect is to provide the media with a platform for speculation about what it means. J.K. Galbraith once infuriated a journalist who kept asking him over a number of days what he thought the outcome of an election would be. Galbraith kept saying he didn’t know but would when the votes were counted. Why didn’t he, thundered the journalist, handicapped by a world view which couldn’t accept that no-one did because then there would be no story.
Fourth, never report anything without hyperbole. Even broadsheets are now full of hyperbole. There is never a problem – it is always a crisis. There is never an accident – it’s always a disaster which must be someone’s fault. If the problem or the accident continues to be reported for more than three days you are automatically ‘beleaguered’, ‘embattled’ or ‘controversial’. Nobody ever just ‘says’ something – you always ‘blast’, ‘savage’, ‘confront’ or ‘slam’. In Abbott’s case a bad interview and some ill-chosen words becomes a crisis and unless he’s off the hook soon he will be ‘under siege’ from people savagely slamming, blasting and confronting him.
As a PR person, of course, once you get a handle on the rules you do what Marx did to Hegel and turn it all on its head. However, it is hard to discern cause and effect. Did the political spin come first, is it all symbiotic, did the spin adapt to the forms of the media, did the media go down market in response to the market or was it just that much easier than getting to understand how a resource rent tax might actually work or what Australia’s debt is relative to other countries and its own historic levels? Just as it easier to report the legend, it is easier to report the leadership speculation than the policy.
CEO’s don’t have it as bad because they are not in the media all the time and good PR people spend a lot of time keeping them out of it. But the markets have fundamental rules just as political reporters do. In the markets case there are two of them: first, there is never allowed to be no news (one they share with the media); and second, that even though markets are always uncertain there must always be an appearance of certainty.
The reasons for this are pretty fundamental too – without something to talk about traders have no to reason to persuade people to trade and without trading transaction costs go down along with bonuses. So CEO’s also aren’t allowed any ‘don’t knows’. After all just look at the analyst and journalistic speculative frenzy when someone is wise enough not to provide ‘guidance’ on the unknowable future.
RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTEREST: At various times in his career the author has been guilty of all these sins -, except for those religiously-determined.