Thursday, July 29, 2010

Communications, PR and spin

This post follows up Issues with spin. There I said in part:

The problem with things like spin and focus groups lies in the way they have inserted deep roots into the policy process. The rank top growth we can all see is really just that, the leaves of a much larger plant.

In this post, I want to tease this conclusion out a little for my own satisfaction.

The first difficulty with spin and the modern emphasis on communications - the two are linked - can be put this way: in previous years, you set policy and then worked out how to sell it; now you work out what will sell and set policy.

Like all flat statements, this one can be challenged.

Obviously, ministers and other parliamentarians took political issues into account in considering policy. We live in a democracy; that's part of their job. Further, any official worth his or her salt needed to be sensitive to political considerations. However, in developing policy and providing advice, political and PR issues were, in the first instance, a second order consideration.

Again, not all officials today are driven first by political and PR considerations. However, I do think that  the saleability of policy has become increasingly central.

This links to a second difficulty, the rise of the PR machine.

When I first began working as a Commonwealth Public Servant, there were far fewer journalists on one side, far fewer press officers on the other. Even when I worked as a senior official during the first period of the Hawke Government, I was essentially dealing with just two people on the PR side. There was a single Departmental PR person, plus the Minister's press secretary. This made things pretty easy.

Since then, we have seen the rise of central communications units plus Departmental communications units. There is far more emphasis on branding, on communications strategies, on image. This distorts decision making, but also clogs it up. There are variations between jurisdictions and Governments, but I think that the general statement is still true.

The rise in concern links to and interfaces with another feature of modern agencies, the emergence of centralised command and control structures.       

To illustrate this, let me take a somewhat generalised example.

Assume that you want to get a new policy approach through that involves sensitive issues. During the time that I was working as an SES officer in the Commonwealth, I would first discuss the matter with my colleagues. Then I would prepare advice to the minister discussing the approach, including pointing to possible issues and problems. This would be vetted in the minister's office by his personal staff who were responsible for considering political issues. Depending on the issue, I might see the minister to brief him.

Subject to the minister's views, we might then proceed to prepare a draft cabinet submission. If the matter was really sensitive, the minister might write to the PM and discuss it with his colleagues. The draft submission would then be circulated for comment and finally lodged for cabinet consideration. During this process, a draft press release would be prepared and cleared with the minister's office. With a very important issue, the Minister might decide to hold a press conference.

Depending on the nature of the initiative, there might be what is now called stakeholder consultation during the process. The industry strategies that I was involved with actually involved very extensive consultation in advance of cabinet consideration. This was genuine consultation, for we were refining ideas. While this process was structured and involved some complex facilitation issues, it was also pretty straightforward.  

The biggest complexity in the entire process was actually internal, working through the issues and interfaces with other interested agencies including Finance and Treasury. What is now called "communications", while important, was generally relatively minor.

Things change. The broad process is still the same, but there are more hoops. Here I want to point to three in particular.

The first is the importance now placed on what are called "communications strategies". These are often mandated and must be prepared in advance. At one level, they mean no more than identifying who needs to be communicated with about the decision, what they need to be told, how they are to be told.

Who could object to this? However, in practice it puts the communications strategy central, not so much the policy. What will the whole thing be called, how will it be sold, what should the graphics look like? Combine this with the increasing tendency to tailor policy to immediate political considerations, and things can get messy. With limited time and resources, every hour spent on "communications" issues is an hour less for considering the detail of the policy.

The second is the rise of branding. This has become quite pervasive. All communications material must be consistent with the brands involved, both agency and cross-government. This brand vetting and associated approval processes comes on top of political vetting. Who can say, what they can say, how they can say it, when they can say it, are all bound by increasingly complex rules.

As a general statement, complexity rises exponentially with the number of decision steps involved. This brings me to the third hoop, the increased centralisation of decision making in agencies and within Government in general. Whereas I could make a decision at my level, now the equivalent decision may require multiple sign-offs. For example, you may have to go through formalised Divisional and Agency executive approval processes.

This interfaces with the growing weight placed upon communications material, for the importance now placed upon this means that the communications material itself may have to proceed through hierarchical decision processes. Something that once might have taken me say a week, now involves many more people and can take a very long time to finalise. 

One of Parkinson's Laws comes into effect here. He cites the case of the Board meeting discussing two topics. The first, a new nuclear power plant, goes straight through because nobody on the Board properly understands it. The second, a new bike shed, takes up hours of discussion because everybody has a view. Something similar happens with communications material. The complex details of a policy get ignored or given less consideration, while everybody wants to amend the communications material.

There is an insecurity issue here. The more insecure the agency, minister or government feels, the more centralised decision the processes become, the more the time spent on "communications". Officials who actually want to get things done get very frustrated as a consequence. In the end, it's often easier (and safer) to go with the flow.

One of the very big problems in the whole process is the way it trivialises policy. If every initiative has to have a "snappy" title, use the right buzz words and be presented in broadly the same way, it becomes much harder for people to distinguish between the important and the less so; in the end, everything gets tarred with the same brush.


Noric Dilanchian said...

Dear Jim

I'm pleased you've extended your conversation on the topic of spin. You've noted elements of the process at work inside government, in particular what public servants are expected to do.

Leaving aside the way all that plays - in the politics between government, media, and other power groups or interests - I'm led to darker views about the CONSEQUENCES of the policy processes and issues you note. I'm looking ahead when I say that.

To do that I'll first look back.

It has been said that Western states are in a "post-ideological" era in politics.

I don't fully accept that. As an example, I never accepted the Francis Fukuyama "end of history" thesis.

The ideologies in fashion have shifted. It's allegedly not now a world of socialism vs capitalism, instead other simplistic dichotomies are spun out as opium for the masses.

Along with that shift, new technologies and habits are changing who gets the money in media and how money is created with media. In an era when "everyone is a publisher" there's way too much selling going on! So much noise, so little time. And so, the public have many, many diversions today. Interestingly this is the case across a range of demographic groups.

In the public sphere at least it seems we've become too busy to notice the little things that are significant.

Politicians play to this new normal. We get worm-fed, door stop, soapbox politics.

For elections, here and in other Western states, the norm has becomes a centralised "mind the gaff" strategy run by spin and brand managers.

In all this fray, I do sense that people yearn for people who keep it real. To me it is evident in everyday instances in real communication between people in work, at play and even in TV programs. It is evident in WikiLeaks, and in a less focused manner social media generally and, of course it is most focused in the blog, Personal Reflections!

Still, our changed circumstances and desires are impacting our values and insights and politicians sell to that itch.

However, if this new normal persists then it only helps make it all the more likely that the shocks to the system, the existing policy frameworks and play with them, will be more disruptive. The Black Swan book continues to reverberate.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting comment, Noric. I think that there is a desire among people to see things kept real. I also think people are in fact sick of being fed simplicities.

One of the interesting things about this campaign seems to be the way people are reacting to it. I have heard far more critical comments than is normal. I am not talking about the commentators here, rather the apparent reactions of the people I know to particular developments and announcements. I am not sure that this is affecting votes. It is a response to both sides.

I agree with you that if the "new normal" were to persist then it does make the system more vulnerable. I also agree with you on the crowding outpoint.

What I don't know is whether public disquiet or things like the Gruen Nation will actually change things or simply improve the sophistication of what is being done now!