The perils of staying on message
I was catching up with a mate for a drink on Friday who I hadn’t seen in quite some time.
We’re good friends, we actually go way back, but there’s always been one aspect of his personality that drives me a little insane. Whenever I see him, he persistently quotes Eddie Murphy’s Delirious stand up show.
He can’t stop. It’s impossible. If doctors were to examine him, I’m 74 per cent certain they’d uncover some sort of degenerative disease that prevents him from doing anything except quote Eddie Murphy.
The first few times it was entertaining. Then it got a little annoying. Then it started to really tick me off. Now, I’m one more Eddie Murphy anecdote from going on a three day killing spree.
The funny thing is, as a PR person, I’m often training clients to ‘stay on message’.
In politics the golden rule is usually, “don’t worry about the question you’re asked. Rather, answer the question you wish you were asked.”
This works effectively with politicians because they have been media trained to within an inch of their life and boy, does it show.
A great example of this is our current Prime Minister. She is possibly the most ‘on message’ politician in the history of western civilisation (narrowly edging out Alfred Deakin in second place and William the Conqueror in third. Mark Latham is last.).
Have you ever watched one of her media briefings or press conferences? You can’t help but be impressed.
It is, in a lot of ways, largely irrelevant what question she is asked because she has her go-to method of answering it, which is to essentially not answer it at all. In fact, 2UE journalist Latika Bourke proclaimed Julia Gillard as ‘The Queen of Unanswered Questions” in the recent federal election campaign.
If she is asked a tough question, the PM will give a little laugh, make a dry observation and then say something completely irrelevant. She then turns to another journalist who will ask something completely different.
In other words, she manages to avoid difficult questions with the ease of Isabel Lucas ordering another apple martini.
A key part to Gillard’s effectiveness is her repetition of messages. Most recently, her use of the phrase ‘moving forward’ has come under scrutiny due to the monotonous repetition by which she used it and its breach of copyright with Toyota.
In fact, in her first press conference of the election campaign she used the phrase ‘moving forward’ an astonishing 35 times.
To put this in perspective, that’s one more than atomic number of selenium.
It’s one more than Edmond Dantès’s prisoner number in The Count of Monte Cristo.
It’s 52 less than the number of drug charges Lindsay Lohan has received in the past six months.
And it’s a whopping 72 short of the number of fake laughs David Koch’s guests have offered in the past three weeks.
Still, it was a lot and it started to grate on the electorate. In fact, when ABC journalist Mark Simkin played 10 ‘moving forwards’ in fast succession on his evening bulletin, it looked like something out of a stand up comedy routine.
The question here is, when does being ‘on message’ start to hurt your image? Can politicians be so on message that it starts to annoy journalists and the electorate so journalists end up writing a negative article and voters vote for someone else?
During the campaign, Ms Gillard thought she had in fact been ‘too on message’ and made a vow that now people would see the ‘real’ her, (which begs the question, who the hell was the red headed woman at all those press conferences if it wasn’t her??).
It didn’t really work (she stayed as ‘on message’ as she had been previously, but the point is an interesting one. Perhaps the Australian public actually expects our politicians to be a little more open.
In light of this, next time I see my mate and he opens his mouth to start quoting Eddie Murphy, I might give him the same advice Mr. T so often gives.
“Shut up, fool!”
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