The situation David Cunliffe has found himself in this week over Labour’s new early childhood policies neatly demonstrates one of big problems with Labour’s communications strategy – information overload.
Perhaps it is something of a hangover from the days of Helen Clark, who was on top of every little detail at any given moment, but Labour seems to think that producing screeds of information on their policies is both necessary and desirable. They think people will be impressed by how clever they are.
In fact, all they are doing is giving the media more rope to fashion a noose for Labour’s neck.
Political journalists do not require any special qualifications. They go to journalism school to learn how to structure an article and avoid being sued. There is no test you must pass to become a Gallery hack proving that you understand policy, economics or statistics.
Gallery hacks don’t know any of this stuff because they don’t need to. Their job is write ‘colour’ pieces about the ‘cut and thrust’ of politics. Long, boring wordy stuff with charts and numbers is both too much for their brains to handle and not what they are looking to write about anyway.
Put simply, a political reporter is only interested in one thing – who is winning or losing. The way they decide who is winning is based on what they decide public opinion on an issue is. Their opinion is not shaped by facts or charts or graphs, but on behaviour. They watch for every little stumble, every umm or aah, every nervous tic or slight change in the tone of a voice. They don’t really care who is right or wrong, only who looks and sounds convincing. When they smell uncertainty they start circling like sharks who’ve spotted a bleeding surfer.
Contrast National’s media strategy on their recent education announcement. John Key rocks up, announces something out of the blue, gives a bare minimum of detail and saunters away. The media spend their time frantically ringing around getting opinions from people and typing furiously about how National’s policy will be received. Hardly anything is known about how this policy will actually work in practice, but no one cares. The media pronounces it a winner because the people they have rung for comment by and large support it.
No journalist spends much time dogging Key with questions about the detail, because they have gotten what they wanted and moved on.
Labour, on the other hand, puts out a great deal of detail, leaves itself open to an easy attack by John Key, the journos smell blood and start ripping chunks off Cunliffe and he starts playing their game, apologising and promising to be more careful in future. Then he gets defensive and starts complaining about their bias.
Reactions like these get you nowhere with the media. Being meek marks you out as a victim for the slaughter and being defensive leaves you looking like a sore loser. The John Key playbook – acting like you’ve done nothing wrong even if you have committed a howling error – is a much better move here. Confidence marks a person as a winner, no matter what the facts are.
If Labour is going to win the election this year then they need to smarten up their game. No details, please, we’re New Zealanders.