Amid uncertainty over Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s future even if he survives a leadership spill on Monday, the fallout from the shock Queensland election result and political chaos in the Northern Territory, politicians are suddenly proclaiming that they need to do more to communicate their message to voters.
Politicians who say this admit a failure to perform the core requirement of their job. But when the solution to professed incompetency is doing more of the same, it further demonstrates a lack of understanding of both communication and the contract politicians have with their constituents.
When politicians say “we are not communicating”, voters are configured as passive subjects into which political ideas and values must be injected, or who are so malleable they can be influenced easily by opinion leaders. Even after the comprehensive rout in Queensland, these perspectives were evident.
Outgoing Queensland treasurer Tim Nicholls said the Newman government’s failure to communicate helped lead to its downfall:
I think the concern from our side tonight is that, having done the right thing, having put in place a policy about fixing up the state we found when we came in 2012, we obviously haven’t communicated that well enough to the public. We will have to, I think, concentrate more on how we communicate that message.
Nicholls’ statement ignores the fact that it’s not how you communicate, it’s what you communicate. Ideas and policies, not messages, are what matters.
Evolution of political communication
Clinging to traditional methods that were successful in a different communication environment is a significant problem for contemporary politicians.
Communication by mainstream political parties is still entrenched in the techniques of political communication developed in the early 20th century. They rely heavily on quantitative analysis – such as polls, demographic analysis and market research – and qualitative analysis of media images and messages and simulation and forecasting. These approaches were developed when mass communication was asymmetrical.
When the media consisted of newspapers, magazines and electronic broadcast media, control of what was published or broadcast was extremely limited. Public contributions to media debates were confined to letters to the editor or making comments on talkback radio, and even this access was tightly controlled.
The problem now, as French philosopher Jacques Ellul argued, is that:
… propaganda cannot be satisfied with partial successes, for it does not tolerate discussion; by its very nature, it excludes contradiction and discussion.
The introduction of the uncontrollable and unpredictable discussion of social media has left political parties floundering. They continue to try to control the agenda using outmoded methods.
Despite social media’s rise, the view that political communication is all about perception continues to be promoted – even among the political media. When a political journalist says that a government should “focus on communication”, the people are wrongly configured as passive.
Formulaic communication is so familiar that it has lost much of its potency. People are now better educated, media-savvy and more aware of the techniques of manipulation. It’s possible for them to find and share data and information, expose lies and flaws in policy, and provide counter-arguments.
Conversely, the public is also able to spread gossip, rumours and misinformation, and deconstruct the traditional methods of political communication. This also weakens its impact and influence.
Political parties and commentators now have to contend with powerful counter-media that simultaneously analyse and assess political communication. This presents a vastly different scenario to the historic model of political communication and the old techniques of targeted, one-sided communication.
The potential for scrutiny of every public statement and appearance by politicians means that the tables have turned. Politicians have to learn how to communicate authentically with the public, and not just pitch well rehearsed “lines”.
Social media’s rise
Social media is critical in the changed political communication landscape because it enables people to “only connect”, as English writer E. M. Forster famously said. A timely idea or relevant information that connects will be freely distributed and can easily overwhelm planned and controlled political communication.
For example, take this tweet about the Queensland election by comedian Corrine Grant.
Grant’s tweet acknowledges the human consequences of policy, and clearly connected with a large number of people. When the human dimension of politics is continually lost or neglected, no amount of “communication focus” will change that.
The combined forces of social media, a more educated and aware public, and belief in consultative and participatory decision-making make political communication more complex and demanding. Politicians must now actually represent their constituents. To do so, they need to realise that communication requires deep understanding and to have something worth saying.
Everything else, as James Brown sang, is just “talking loud and saying nothin’”.
A prime example of “saying nothing” is the A$8 million government advertising campaign for its proposed changes to higher education. This campaign is the most recent example on a long list of failed, post-policy attempts by governments to communicate with the electorate.
None of these campaigns substantially changed public opinion. Instead, they generated hostility and mobilised opposition. The public regard belated attempts to persuade them of the benefits of substantial policy change as a waste of time and money.
For decades, political communication treated the public as a mob of sheep that simply needed to be herded and pointed in the right direction with appropriate messages and the occasional dog whistle. Today, a more accurate metaphor for the public would be a murmuration of starlings – a mass of surging, synchronised individuals likely to move in an unpredictable direction.
Successful political communication must move from the one-sided broadcast model and become more dialogic. This requires listening – not just telling someone that you’re listening. It means paying attention to what they’re saying. Listening also requires being prepared to change opinions or behaviour in response to new information.
Dialogic communication in contemporary politics requires values, principles and policies to be better articulated, evidence-based and properly costed. The Australian polity will no longer accept anything less. Politicians and political parties need to remember that their fundamental ideology and policy priorities must be clear before they can be communicated to voters.
Other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing series, “New Politics”, can be read here.