Following up on the discussion on Problems with Team Tony, this morning’s short Sunday Essay takes these words from Tony Blair as an entry point:
The way in which information is exchanged so quickly has forever changed the way in which people want to consume information.They demand that things be condensed into 20-second sound bites. With complex problems, this is exceedingly difficult, but to be an effective communicator and leader you need to be able to condense complex items down to the core and be able to do this quickly.” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.
I found Mr Blair’s words to be deeply condescending because they seem to imply that I need to be spoon-fed, to be given my information on a spoon in the way my mother gave me medicine as a child. The discussion that threw up this quote dealt in part with the need for simplification. Winton Bates even tried his hand at twitterising the Gettysburg address!
There is no doubt that short phrases or sentences can be powerful. “Not happy, Jan” entered the Australian language from a TV ad because it so aptly captured that feeling of discontent that we all feel from time to time. In the newspaper press, the role of a good sub-editor is to create the headline that will both capture the essence of a story and persuade people to read it. This is a highly skilled craft form. It is also one in which the two objectives, capturing the essence while persuading people to read, can conflict. We have all seen dramatic headlines that do not properly reflect the content, We have also seen headlines that are influenced by a third factor as well, the campaigns or particular political stances that the paper happens to be pursuing at the time.
In politics, Mr Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” is effective because it both plays to prejudice and succinctly captures a Government objective. Interestingly, people were actually surprised at the fervour with which the Government pursued this objective to the exclusion of other considerations. It appears that many of us reacted as though it were just a slogan rather than a Government objective writ in stone that must be delivered no matter the cost.
In the religious arena, “love thy neighbour as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are powerful phrases because they capture the essential message of Christianity.
Sadly, we live in a world where Mr Blair’s views have come to occupy the high ground. That is the way we are all treated. If I am to be fed on a diet of slogans and simplified messages, then I appear to have reached a position once defined by Adolf Hitler: All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach. I am in no way equating Adolf Hitler and Mr Blair, but Mr Blair’s views as quoted above would seem in many ways to carry something of the same message as expressed by Hitler those years before.
Things tend to correct themselves, although there is a price to be paid for that correction. We live in an age today where every initiative, every policy statement, every new business cost cutting measure has to have a title attached to it, to be expressed in a particular visual form, to have its own communications strategy. As with so many things, communications strategies have become de rigueur because communications itself has become so poor that people have largely tuned out. The price we pay is to be served unadulterated pap. A further price is that things that are important can actually be concealed, can escape attention.
I, for one, would like to have less communications and more information, less communications and more analysis. I want to be given time to think about things, to understand.
Australian Treasury Secretary Parkinson talks about the increasing difficulty of bringing about “reform”, contrasting the present period with Bob Hawke’s time. I think that he is fundamentally wrong in one important respect. Presently, Australians (and others) live in a world of constant change, of constant calls for reform all constantly packaged and re-presented. How do Australians (and others) identify what is important when the goal posts and rules shift so often that nobody can understand just what game is actually being played?
That’s the nub of it. We don’t have a communications problem as such. We have an approach problem in which “communications” itself has become part of the problem.
In addition to being the Sunday Essay, this post also acts as the Monday Forum post.