The greatest curiosity of the Labor leadership brawl is Kevin Rudd’s “faceless men” line, which seems to refer to prominent parliamentary colleagues with very recognisable faces. But there is method in the way he is using it.
When Robert Menzies described the then Labor national executive as “faceless men” he was stating the obvious: the 36 people who ran the party were all men who were barely known publicly, and who took decisions in secret. Whitlam’s later reforms of the Labor machine led to open national party conferences in which the brawls and love-ins went on public display, often to the party’s embarrassment.
In a strategic communication sense, Kevin Rudd’s use of “faceless men” in recent days is a tactical message designed to support his long-standing argument against the faction leaders who now run the party. He is suggesting that faction leaders do their work well out of public view, including organising numbers for pre-selections, and leadership challenges. From that base his message is designed to trip the “faceless men” wire to detonate fear in Labor members, especially those who face a wipeout at the next election.
It was a good, media-friendly line when Menzies used it and it remains one today. Kevin Rudd has always produced good lines for the media, so why not use this one? Besides, it invokes Gough Whitlam, spurned on that cold winter’s night when the ALP executive met in Canberra while he waited for decisions outside, then sacked as Prime Minister by John Kerr. It brings to mind the sense of outrage at being done in by private deals, and the right-is-on-my-side impression that it brings.
But it is curious that he should use it when for the past 18 months he has himself allegedly orchestrated a “faceless” campaign to erode the prime minister’s support, and has now been found out doing it. Those he accuses of being faceless are, of course, far from it. But in politics, communicating a tactical message has little to do with consistency. It’s about sticking to the message, however pragmatic that might be, to dominate the now hackneyed 24-hour news cycle.
It is also curious that seasoned political journalists, once savaged regularly by Rudd and his media staff, have again fallen under his spell, reporting his “faceless men” charge almost without analysis.
Whether or not “faceless men” is a clapped-out line, well past its due date, it was a brilliant pre-emptive public relations strike for Rudd to adopt it before Gillard’s supporters used it against him and his.
Coupled with the call for people to contact their local members to support Rudd, and the “I’m the only one who can save Labor from electoral disaster” pitch, Rudd has a communication strategy being implemented with ruthless tactical efficiency.
He is delivering direct messages via communication channels that utilise both public (mass news media) and private (phone calls and no doubt email) methods.
Such is the news media’s fascination with the leadership stoush, Rudd’s messages are rarely mediated, so they directly reach voters through extensive live coverage and repetition of video of his media conferences. Here there appears to have been a strategic selection of “target publics.”
In a technical communication sense, voters are a secondary audience. The primary audience is the Labor MPs who will decide the leadership on Monday. The news media is a tertiary audience, but an important one, as those who influence the first two groups by deciding what messages to report.
Like Tony Abbott’s “the PM can’t be trusted” and “big new taxes on everything” lines, if “faceless men” is repeated enough, via different communication channels, people might believe it.
We’ll know by lunch time on Monday whether this strategy has worked.