Richard Harman concluded his presentation to the recent Fabian “Destination Next Progressive Majority” event by quoting the noted political scientist Bob Chapman’s remark that he had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was far more important for a political party to have a communication strategy than an economic policy.” I’m inclined to agree.
Other points he made were:
Governments usually change when either one or both of two conditions were met — The first when there is economic insecurity generally signalled by falling growth and growing unemployment and the second when there is insecurity about a party’s leadership generally indicated by a change of Leader. To a greater or lesser extent both of those conditions clearly existed in 1975, 1984, 1990 and 1999. That leaves us with two changes of Government which were more complex 1972 — and 2008.The 1972 election did include a change of leader — Jack Marshall forKeith Holyoake — and the economy was beset by inflation the overriding theme of that campaign was something else; it was about an electorate convinced that a Government had run out of answers and was tired and that electorate aspired to more. It was pretty similar in 2008 — the Clark Government looked weary; there were few new faces at the top and there had been internal discipline issues.
First, though clearly the economy is coming off the boil, growth is still expected at 3% this year. Secondly, such is the discipline with the National caucus that any instability there is highly unlikely. So the next question is whether the Government will look tired, and possibly more remote from ordinary Kiwis in 2017. That is possible and that’s maybe the first lesson that can be learned from the Northland by-election; that some of the Team Key gloss is starting to wear off among the public, if not the caucus..There is a discontent, albeit unfocussed and ill-defined in parts of provincial New Zealand which resembles the forces which drove the rise of Social Credit in the 60s and 70s…When people feel left out and ignored by metropolitan politicians they seek their own answers.
People need to feel a connection to politicians which transcends policy or debate and comes down to emotion and gut feeling. People clearly want their politicians to be “one of them”. John Key understands this and he has a shopping list of voters’ needs — a job, a house, a safe community, accessible healthcare and a good education. His insistence that his Cabinet and Caucus stick to those priorities is at the heart of his success with voters.
We are undergoing the most substantial change in the media industry that we have seen for at least 200 — more probably 400 — years. The change is overwhelming, comprehensive and advancing at a break neck speed. Simply the change has at its heart the empowerment by technology of the individual to select what media they want to consume and when they want to consume it. At an industry level the change has been to lower the barriers to entry and this provokes the fragmentation of the industry.What this means for political journalism and therefore political communication is thatthe old structures and certainties are gone. What it means for consumers is that they now have a multitude of choices — and they are exercising them, dividing themselves up into smaller and smaller media niche markets.
The Press Gallery still exists but having returned to the Gallery after an absence ofnearly 20 years it is clearly a different place — getting to grips with 24 hour mediaand constantly searching for the next tweet rather than the real story.Group think prevails.Few journalists there have time to do much more than process press releases or tweet the latest sound bite. In the meantime it is the tweeters and bloggers who are having their time in the sun. They cannot be ignored. Not because of their aggregate audiences but because they are setting the agenda. Unpalatable as many people find Whaleoil – or David Farrar – or, dare I say it, much of what is on The Standard — the under resourced so-called mainstream media is following them and looking for leads.
the party that wins through this clutter is likely to be one that has such a single overpowering message that it overpowers everything else. Trying to fight the next election with policy detail will doom a party to getting lost in the new media maze. That doesn’t mean that a party should not have a manifesto and above all very clearly stand for something. It must. And nothing disrupts any communication more than if the audience believe you haven’t got anything to say.But the time to talk policy is well before the next election, probably even before election year. You have to build trust and as Rachel Hunter famously said it won’t happen overnight.I know Labour loves long tortuous policy debates — but if you want to be taken seriously you can’t keep putting out press releases about the Auckland housing crisis unless you offer an alternative solution.The challenge is that in presenting your core beliefs and values to voters you do so in such a way that voters believe that you fundamentally share their beliefs, values and aspirations. You have got to be seen to be not just on their side but be “one of them” as well.
You need to get to know them–to take them and their passions and quirks seriously, and you need above all to walk with them in your communications.