Master communicator now tasked with selling recovery

Jacinda Ardern has proved herself to be a master communicator, even if Government has proved itself to be no different from any other, says Peter Dunne

The move to Covid19 Alert Level 2 marks the end of the first stage of the national campaign against the virus, although, as the Prime Minister has observed, not the end of the war.

Nevertheless, it is the start of the next phase with the focus shifting more to the massive economic social and economic recovery now required.

Virtually every area of life in New Zealand as we knew it has been upended and will need to be rebuilt. In that regard, the fear and uncertainty generated by Covid-19 will start to give way to a new fear and uncertainty based on the prospect of the changes that lie ahead and what they will mean for the shape of our society and economy in the years ahead.

This week’s Budget is the first step in that process. Aside from its specific provisions, its role is to set the scene for the direction and policy changes ahead and to begin the task of public engagement on that score.

The communications skills the Government has employed so far in selling its approach to Covi-19 and gaining the necessary public buy-in will now need to be turned with equal vigour to selling its approach to the recovery, if it is to be successful.

Mild alarm bells are already sounding on this score with many suggestions that the billions of dollars already announced in various relief packages and wage and general business subsidies have been too untargeted to be specifically effective, and that an awful day of reckoning awaits when these subsidies start to wind down, let alone when the time comes to repay the loans that have funded them.

There have been suggestions of panic responses so far, and the lack of a coherent plan about what comes next. So, the call on the Government’s communication skills will be considerable when it comes to persuading New Zealanders that not only we can sustain all this extra expenditure, let alone the next phase to come, at a time when Covid-19 has shut down much of the economy’s income-earning capacity, but that there is also a clear plan for what comes next.

All the while, the Government will need to be mindful of Ronald Reagan’s famous observation, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Throughout the Covid-19 campaign the Prime Minister has won plaudits at home and abroad for the clear, compassionate, and empathetic way in which she has conveyed the government’s objectives and decisions.

Generally speaking, the Government has been mindful of this risk since the advent of the Covid-19 lockdowns, although there have been times where it has veered dangerously close to that trap, only to pass over to officials at the critical moment to avoid being caught altogether. 

But as the long and complex recovery journey gets under way, and a significant period of social and economic reconstruction – the biggest since the 1980s – commences, the Government will need to be more mindful than ever of Reagan’s warning.

Throughout the Covid-19 campaign the Prime Minister has won plaudits at home and abroad for the clear, compassionate, and empathetic way in which she has conveyed the government’s objectives and decisions. The daily press conferences and other mainstream and social media formats she has utilised extensively have been critical elements in this hitherto successful strategy. They have struck a responsive chord because they have been promoted as fresh and unusual in a world where political presentations still tend to be too staid and formulaic.

However novel and popular an approach it has been, it is far from new. Many years ago, the legendary communications guru Marshall McLuhan observed that the media environment we live in today is one which “compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other” because “too many people know too much about each other.”

In that regard, the Prime Minister’s appeals to the “team of five million” and her near constant references to “we” and “us” fit absolutely with the McLuhan message, and are straight lifts, intentionally or otherwise, from his playbook.

Moreover, the Prime Minister has mastered what McLuhan has referred to as the key to success in television and public media presentations: a “low-pressure style” which utilises “gentle wit, irony, (and) understatement.”

She understands the need to “engage in intimate conversation” where she “should suggest, not state; request, not demand,”; where her “warmth and sincerity” is used to bring her into the nation’s living rooms as a guest, who “talk(s) to one person at a time,” but does not shout. Consequently, the style becomes the substance, and approval of the style leads to approval of the message being advanced.

In responding to the March 15 Christchurch Mosque attacks last year, the Prime Minister used these attributes to strike a chord with the nation’s shock and grief and provide the strong emotional support and reassurance shocked communities were seeking. Style and tone were paramount in calming fears and concerns in Christchurch and the national Islamic community and were widely acknowledged.

... it was an egregious breach of the spirit of the Official Information Act, that deserves to be called out and its proliferation should not be encouraged.

Now the Prime Minister has utilised her natural warmth and charm once again to sell a new overarching message – this time, that the spread of Covid-19 was a potential killer for large numbers of the population, but that we could overcome it by all pulling together and putting up with a little hardship for a short period of time – while leaving the detail to be set out by bureaucrats, and subsequently analysed in endless detail by the print media.

It was undoubtedly this thinking that lay behind the mass release of more than seventy official documents late last week. Again, this was not a new move – successive governments have used this tactic for years, often on the eve of a long weekend, to thwart excessive media scrutiny of complex decisions. The Prime Minister knew full well that with the weekend looming, and the focus shifting to the move to Level 2 announcement scheduled for Monday afternoon there would be little traction gained from anything controversial disclosed by the documents.

And she was right – that was exactly what happened, to the media’s general chagrin. Nevertheless, it was an egregious breach of the spirit of the Official Information Act, that deserves to be called out and its proliferation should not be encouraged.

The accompanying memorandum to Ministers and public servants about saying nothing and referring all comments to her and its shuddering reference to the Government being so popular it did not need to explain anything fitted the Reagan precept to a tee.  The episode certainly buried once and for all the Prime Minister’s claim to lead the “most open, most transparent government New Zealand has ever had.”

All this showed this Government is no different from any of its predecessors, but whether any of this resonates beyond the beltway, time will tell.

For most New Zealanders, their approach to politics is best summed up by Norman Kirk’s observation that people “don’t ask for much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

The Prime Minister has managed to embrace all these aspirations in her Covid19 presentations. And, given that psychological identity with what a politician is aiming to do, rather than their specific policy or achievements, is often enough to gain voters’ support, it explains the extraordinarily high levels of public approval for what the Government has done over the lockdowns.

A similar narrative and tone now must be developed to sell the recovery ahead.

In scope, duration, and impact it is likely to be a far more demanding task than overseeing the Covid-19 response has been to date. As well as the big picture vision, there will have to be specific detail to back up the rhetoric, making its outcome, let alone its success, far more unpredictable. There will be winners to be supported and losers to be soothed, no longer one unified team of five million.

So, the attributes that have served the Prime Minister and the country so well over the last weeks are now about to be tested in an entirely different way, as never before.  

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