Thursday, March 29, 2007

Modern Political Myth - Oppositions and the Media

Listening to the discussions on the wash-up to the NSW elections, I was struck by the constant references to the difficulties that oppositions faced in getting coverage media outside the election campaign period. This, commentators suggested, was a major reason why oppositions were struggling against incumbent governments with their control over information and their press apparatus.

This is true, but it completely misses the point. The core problem is that oppositions have been trapped into playing a political game that they cannot win, a game in which success is measured by column inches or minutes of sound or vision. They must lose here, forced to play the role of political attack dogs in order to get that thirty seconds of ephemeral coverage.

Well, if you cannot win the game, change the rules or, better still, change the game. If you think that this sounds like pie in the sky, consider this.

The election is over and the party has lost. You have just been appointed chief of staff to a new shadow minister. Your task is to help your boss raise his or her profile, to position him/her for the next election. How might you do this?

Well, the first thing you do is to put aside all the conventional wisdom. Then you do just three things.

First, outside electoral matters, you have to stop your boss's natural desire to issue press releases. You should only issue a release if you have something important to say. That way people will be more inclined to listen.

Secondly, stop the attack dog role. Focus not on what the Government is doing wrong, but on what the Government is doing. Avoid negative comments inside Parliament and out. Focus instead on making a positive contribution to debate. That way you get listened too.

Steps one and two are critical to take your boss outside the game, laying the base for step three. This involves building profile below the normal media horizon. How do you do this? Well, it's very simple.

People are conditioned by the game to think, to use modern jargon, in top down terms. Hence the focus on inches of media coverage, of getting to the public as a whole. Well, that public does not care and will not until the next election, and by then its too late. So think bottom up.

Every portfolio area has a variety of stakeholders, both organisations and people of influence. This is your target area, this is where you want to build your boss's credibility.

Start by listening and learning. Both you and the boss should talk too as many people as you can. In simplest terms, you want your boss to be seen as a natural part of the area in question. This does not mean that you simply reflect back to people what they think or feel, although there is a place for this. Rather, you are developing the understanding and ideas that will form the base for future policy approaches.

As your boss builds his his/her confidence and understanding of the area, look for topics on which the boss might make a contribution. Keep them professional, not party political. Test ideas. You are still operating below the main media horizon, but you will now start being picked up by the specialist media, a largely ignored area. Again, keep it low key and professional. In time, this will lead to increased overall media coverage. But again keep it low key and professional unless there is a critical reason to do otherwise.

Now track forward to the election.

If you have done these three simple things, you will have a boss who is in command of the detail of the field and who has an established reputation in the portfolio area. Now when he/she rolls out policy and wants to say something, people including the major media will listen.

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