By John C. Dyer, UK correspondent
A Paradigm in crisis
A ComRes poll out 25 July 2010 shows a softening of British confidence in coalition "austerity" cuts and privatization, but paradoxically, a continuing belief that they are necessary. Only 37% do not think the cuts are "too deep." Only 35% think the "front loaded" pace of cuts isn't "too fast." The percentage by which the electorate agrees with Coalition policies approximates those intending to vote Conservative in the next election. Yet 57% of the British public believes the cuts are necessary.
What accounts for the internal inconsistency?
I suspect many a PhD will be earned analyzing this period of history in years to come. There is the feel of events building to a climax where the governing paradigm across the West (the faith in private enterprise free of government) confronts a nonconforming reality. It is the kind of "period of perturbation" that launches new "isms," new paradigms, new leaders, new alliances. But it is also the kind of newness that comes at a heavy cost.
The tea leaves suggest to some the bankruptcy of the old paradigm could come as soon as August, but all I will say with confidence is that it appears to be such a time. I will leave to the PhD's thorough documentation and thoughtful analysis as to how it all happened. I want, however, in this post to highlight Public Relations techniques I believe contributed to both the development and ascendency of the current paradigm.
The Influence of Spin Doctors
One of the many sub stories in the jaw dropping spectacle of The News of the World (Nowt) debacle is that of the influence of "spin doctors." Particularly the influence of spin doctors who learned their craft in what is increasingly regarded as "the Empire." They have contributed significantly to the framing of political debate in the UK.
Andy Coulson, yesterday's spin doctor to both the Conservative Party in opposition and the Prime Minister, today faces criminal charges for unscrupulous and corrupt practices as editor of the News of the World.
Neil Wallis, today's spin doctor to Scotland Yard as Scotland Yard sought to manage the debacle, is also today facing similar criminal charges for his time with News of the World.
Tom Baldwin, Labour Leader David Miliband's spin doctor, is also an alumnus of The Times of London, where he worked for Gove when Gove worked for The Times prior to becoming the Coalition's Education Secretary.
Although Baldwin is, as of yet, uncharged, and for the present not linked with phone hacking, Conservatives defending their judgment in employing Coulson have been quick to point out Baldwin's participation in the demise of Lord Ashcroft during the time Baldwin was a journalist.
Perhaps as significantly to this article, Channel 4 in a 25 July 2010 documentary on the influence of Rupert Murdoch in the UK revealed that Baldwin advised Labour Leaders to soften their criticisms of The News of the World and Murdoch, arguing Labour should generalize their criticisms to all the press. Did Baldwin bring about the obvious muzzling of Ed Balls, whose vigorous attack on the Coalition's Plan A appeared to have been having success with the electorate?
Everyone uses a Spin Doctor and the alumni of the Murdoch media seem to be everywhere. They have played essential roles with both the Coalition and the Opposition in "framing the message." I find it beggars belief to think they were uninfluenced by their years of service to "the Empire" and the Murdoch paradigm. As documented by Channel 4, that paradigm is anti-Europe, pro-government budget cuts, privatization, and "unleashing the animal" of private enterprise.
It is the barely spoken and almost never questioned frame of reference that guides most men in of most actions. This, I argue, is the meaning of the paradox captured in the ConRes poll.
Spin doctors are essential bits of kit for anyone in public life. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good, indeed, do useful work. I hold them in high regard and would not want anything I have to say to be taken as a negative reflection on any of them. As always, it is the "dark wizards" that give all wizards a bad name.
Knowing these techniques is central to deconstructing fact from spin. Deconstructing spin is increasingly an important skill as the old paradigm confronts reality. It is important to an uncertain British public coming to grips with dozens of pro big corporate management initiatives masked in liberal rhetoric and pushed as “no choice” and "no other credible option." It is important to an unsuspecting US public, apparently about to be treated to the same campaign in the US. It is important to those "early adopters" who keep up, think, influence, and seek a more responsible and responsive government.
The Three Talking Point Rule
By whatever nickname one calls Communications Directors, one of the basic techniques they advise for their client public figures is the “Three Talking Point Rule.” It is verbal judo for the public figure confronted with a media interview. The public figure chooses three short sentences that set out aspects of one basic point.
The discipline requires the public figure to wrap the answers to all questions around one of those three talking points, whether or not such answers actually respond to the question. The "theme point" is first. Example taken from Parliament's debate on the hacking scandal: "We (in Parliament) mustn't endanger the criminal investigation (by talking about it a lot in Parliament). An aspect of that point is second. Example: "We have referred this bad conduct to the proper independent authorities." A memorable summary point is last. Example: "The important point is, the Music has stopped on my watch." Any question should be answered with a version of one of these. And the version should not vary much from the original. Better rote than imagination.
If the listener is not sure whether or not the public figure is using this technique, listen for the key phrase, “but the important point is ...” How often does one hear this phrase from public figures? The “important point” is the third of the talking points. It is meant to be memorable, a conversation closer, and public figures are taught not to hesitate telegraphing this by saying, “ ... but the important point is ...”
Focus Group Validated Word Choice and Images.
PR firms do a lot of research into what words and images turn a consumer’s head, evoke warm and fuzzy feelings or revulsion. Political operatives deal with the electorate as a form of consumer.
For example, in the US, focus groups have identified that consumers love “farmers” but hate “agricultural producers.” Farmer evokes warm and fuzzy images of "Mr. Green Jeans." Agricultural producers evoke revolting images of “factory farms.” The first image is positive; the second negative. So if one wants a positive response one uses the term "farmer" while if one wants the negative response one uses the term "producer" and/or "agriculture."
Does one sees a Conservative as Jeffry Archer telling a BBC presenter to “get your grubby hands” off his nice walls during a BBC production in which Archer shows off a very expensive painting and the gorgeous view from his expensive flat, or the kinder, gentler David Cameron promoting “The Big Society”? The image is vital to the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party under David Cameron has sought to “rebrand” itself, hoping the public will no longer see them as the “nasty Tories,” but the fiscally responsible champions of us all. “We are all in it together.” Word choice can have a profound impact on how we see that.
One picture is worth a thousand words. Especially in selling an idea. The resistance and critical attention with which we respond to politicians talking lets down as we unconsciously take in the messages of an image. For example, consider David Cameron announcing NHS “reform” in a hospital, speaking to an audience of NHS professionals, in front of a banner painted in warm colours and reading, “Working together for a better NHS.” Benign and positive, yes? Contrast that with Tories, teeth gleaming, raucously cheering austerity cuts to public services. Images count. Words, as on a banner, can combine the subliminal advantages of colour choice, photo op circumstances, choice of people symbols, and word meaning.
Of course, both can come back to bite the public figure. Consider President Bush famously standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished.” It is perhaps early to say whether Cameron’s NHS moment becomes his “Mission Accomplished” moment, but the potential is there. The Coalition already has reaped the down side of “in it together.” Even the Prime Minister was heard to sarcastically repeat it in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions.
But for all the potential downsides, the technique of word and image choice based on focus group works. These techniques move below our conscious resistance to influence our feelings in a way that causes us to suspend analytical reasoning.
Change the Dial
“Changing the dial” is a time tested PR technique that integrates and utilizes all of “the dark arts.” Change the dial is used to sell anything from logging on US national forest land (Healthy Forests Initiative) to rebranding products in the doldrums (Happy Cows for cheese, "super food" nut and berry health claims) to a one world order without boundaries as an answer to fears about nuclear weapons (Beyond War, a New Way of Thinking).
The PR firm identifies phrases that resonate in focus groups as described previously. Take examples relevant to the UK: "maxed out the credit card" or "what householder would spend what she doesn't have in her purse." The PR person then connects those phrases with circumstances, for example the British government’s deficit, and that to the economy doldrums as cause rather than effect.
Then the PR campaign manager connects by assertion those resonant phrases with an alleged "solution." He finds some institutions with lots of credentials who are willing to add their credibility to the campaign’s credibility (for example the IMF, the OECD, other EU Finance Ministers, The Sunday Times). Throw in maybe an "astroturf" endorser or two. An “astroturf” organization is a PR derivative pretending to be a “grass roots movement.” Add an avalanche of press releases featuring endorsements from "early adopters" of influence, like, say, Rupert Murdoch or Tony Blair or Tony Blair’s former press secretary. Then, with any luck, the campaign changes the public attitude toward a product, in this case the political products of deficit reduction, "increased choice" (privatization), and “austerity” cuts.
I am not in a position to say that is what either or both Rupert Murdoch or the Prime Minister have done in the UK. I wasn't in the room or privy to confidences. But if one of them didn't, history worked a marvelous change of dial campaign all on its own.
Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, Neoconservatives pushing a fiscal responsibility agenda failed in all their attempts to persuade the public that deficit reduction (and the somewhat different proposition, debt reduction) was important, let alone critical enough to cut drastically services people found essential. Today 57% of the British public remains convinced of this message despite their misgiving and the mounting conflicting evidence of failed performance.
The role of Perception.
A word about the downside. The upside of such a technique is, it works. The downside is that it is grounded in perception. Perception is often poorly in tune with reality.
These unconscious mental tapes can be readily debunked if one is of a mind to do so. Consider, for relevant current examples:
- What householder who you know actually reaches into her purse for cash to pay for a Trident, the bailout of a nation's banks, simultaneous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, floods, volcanic disruption, and to float an economy on the skids?
- What credit card for a householder carries no limits?
- When have "guns and butter" policies ever not hurt an economy?
- What deficit reduction plan has ever cut public spending without depressing the economy?
- What economy already fragile from a bubble bursting at precisely the locus of the national wealth can handle the job losses brought about by austerity cuts, losses that lead to reduced consumer spending and private investment?
- What is the estimated total impact of tax evasion and tax avoidance (US tax planning) on the public purse?
- So just why are we selling off all the assets anyway? If this a temporary austerity cut to deal with a transient situation, why are we selling assets and how much will it cost to replace them down the road when the situation changes?
Just asking these questions gives one a very different view of the real world than the campaign to sell the British public on severe cuts to public services, the selling of public assets, and the privatization of public services would have the British public believe.
The British public would do itself a favour if it would take some time to deconstruct the campaign for the public service cuts, sale of public assets, and privatization of public services to which they have been subject. Such a deconstruction might help the British public come to grips with the disconnect between their feelings about the cuts and their beliefs as to what is necessary, and to formulate a truly responsive Plan B. It is time for the British public to say to itself, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, wades like a duck, guess what, it is a duck. Time to call a screeching halt, not just a “pause to listen.”
And for the United States, it is never too late to be prepared. The behavour of those American politicians the UK Coalition Business Secretary Vince Cable ironically characterized as "Republican Congressman nutters" will be the beginning of things to come if "enough good men do nothing" in response.