Regardless of whether the budget was fair or whether the country is facing a deficit crisis, the Federal Government is failing to persuade voters that budget savings are necessary. Many who voted for the Coalition are disappointed by the Government’s inability to communicate effectively, which has led to a crisis of confidence in the community.
So what should the Government do to overcome its current communication problems?
First, it should supplement the advice it receives from its political media advisers with counsel from communicators who are experienced in issues management and crisis communication – a complementary, but different, skill.
Second, it needs to hear, and listen to, what people are saying. If the community doesn’t understand the need for budget savings, the Government should find out why. Is it that people don’t believe there is a deficit crisis, or that they don’t understand how it will affect them? The answers to these and similar questions, which can be obtained through qualitative research, will enable the Government to re-frame what it says and how it says it.
The Government’s present communication strategy seems to be to say: (a) we have a deficit problem; and (b) this is how we intend to fix it. As few people understand the implications for them of a budget deficit, is it surprising that when they are asked to make a sacrifice to help fix it, they say no?
Start a dialogue
So, third, the Government should start a dialogue with the Australian people on the country’s economic situation, the implications of continuing as we are, and where budget savings could be made. Ministers’ current approach seems to be to harangue voters on the need for cuts the Government has chosen – but, if people don’t understand the need for cuts, it is not surprising they are antagonistic. The brief one-line communication style that was effective in opposition is inappropriate to communicate complex reasons why change is necessary.
A consultative approach would be more likely to win the community’s support and, while it may lead to different savings from those currently proposed by the Government, the result is likely to be a lower deficit, for which the Government can eventually claim credit. In addition, the Government would receive plaudits for listening to voters and responding to their concerns.
This dialogue should be direct with the people, as well as through media, so people hear the Government’s case first-hand. The Government’s current policy of relying mainly on television, radio and newspapers to communicate its position risks its losing control of what voters hear. It also limits the Government’s ability to explain Australia’s predicament and options in language that people understand.
This means that the Government needs to use other ways to communicate its messages. One such technique would be the online equivalent of a quarterly ‘town hall meeting’, discussing in a conversational style the need for change with supporters of the Government.
The influence of Twitter on media coverage makes it all the more important to communicate directly, as well as through the media. A Twitter campaign by activists can exaggerate the strength of feeling on a matter, which then may be reflected in, and magnified through, media coverage.
Social media – and especially Twitter – make it more difficult to build a consensus for reform.
Public opinion today is formed faster, on less information, than in the past. Social media have also affected party loyalty, with people increasingly following issues rather than a party platform. This encourages political parties to become more populist, which often is incompatible with the longterm needs of the country.
Fourth, the Government should research the impact of its social media activities and review whether they are succeeding in building support for its policies; it seems that people are not hearing its messages, or the messages are being delivered in an ineffective way. For example, it is possible that the prime minister’s weekly message on his Facebook page is perceived as a lecture, rather than an attempt to engage with people.
Fifth, the Government should explain the situation in language to which people can relate.
References to billions of dollars are alien to most of us, and the budget deficit needs to be related to household budgets and to its impact on the individual voter and his or her children.
Sixth, the Government needs to focus on issues that currently are of concern to people. In today’s fast-moving world, with a 24-hour news cycle, these change quickly. The issues that helped the Government to win the 2013 election are no longer ‘top of mind’; voters have moved on.
Yet the Government continues to remind us of its past achievements in stopping the boats and abolishing the carbon and mining taxes. People have already taken these for granted and ‘switch off’. The Government’s focus should be on its future plans and their relevance to voters, and on people’s current concerns and aspirations.
Seventh, the Government should encourage supporters of its policies to speak out and use social media to broadcast their support. The university vice chancellors’ support for university fee deregulation was a good example of this, and more public support by third-party influencers should be encouraged.
So, after adopting these changes to its communication strategy, how does the Government launch its new approach?
It needs a ‘circuit breaker’. Many voters have already ‘switched off’ and decided this will be a oneterm government. The Government needs to recapture voters’ attention through an unexpected initiative that signals ‘We have heard what you are saying and are changing the way we do things’.
The Government could learn a lot from successes and failures in managing issues and crises in the commercial world. When BP mis-handled communication on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, its CEO, Tony Hayward, either received poor advice from his communication team or ignored the advice they gave him. As a result, he lost his job. It would be unfortunate if poor communication led to a similar fate for the Government.