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Here’s the Turnbull Paradox: for him to think he’s the smartest man in the room, that he  knows best what we want, means he can’t be the smartest man in the room.

Public Relations

That means he hasn’t absorbed the ‘why’ of the Brexit result where the English (outside London) rejected the campaigning of the London elite, and the rise of Trump supported by white Americans who have felt ignored for years by Washington, as well as a host of other events that may have first become apparent to a lot of us with the Arab Spring uprisings – “We have a voice and we want to be counted”.

The old communications paradigm no longer works. It’s also why the craft of public relations is increasingly important. We think Turnbull might have got away with his fairly lack-lustre messaging a few years back, but now voters more anxiously want acknowledgment that their issues matter.

As public relations pros, we are seeing it this way:

  • First, with global news now so accessible, people generally are sick of, night after night on TV, witnessing the misbehaviour of politicians and company execs that are exposed to be corrupt, are self-interested, flip-flop on decisions, double-talk when asked straight questions, exaggerate and otherwise mislead.
  • Second, in an information-rich world, the super-informed elite have left a lot of the public behind, those who can’t or are not interested in keeping up. The pace of change is increasingly exposing the gap, not between the haves and havenots, but the super-informed and averagely-informed. The latter includes those anxious about runaway debates on immigration, same-sex marriage, climate change, Islam, exploding deficits, and more.

And as access to information grows, and the news cycle gets faster, keeping up gets harder and more people get left behind.

So it’s logical that we can expect, without a changed approach by leaders, that this disconnect will grow.

There’s a hint of what’s required in Consumer Public Relations, particularly with large companies with good access to customer data, where communication now is more rifle-shot than shotgun; targeting increasingly smaller groups of people. So, out of necessity it’s more about engagement, less about push-marketing; talking with instead of talking at people.

We wrote about this expectation for Turnbull to ‘Please Explain’ shortly after he became Prime Minister, and the ongoing absence of a headland statement of his vision contributed to his diminishing support. Only relatively recently did he acknowledge that he was balancing the internal divisions in his party, and even that level of honesty, frankly delivered would have exposed a quite attractive vulnerability – it’s not seen as a weakness, but a strength, to share a problem.

Public Relations: Negative campaigning is not the answer

It also follows that Shorten doesn’t appear to get the changing mood either. As public relations practitioners we argue that, in this new information-rich world, it’s a pyrrhic  victory to gain advantage with misleading or exaggerated negative campaigning, such as the Medicare scare.  What once worked, at best delivers a short-term gain caused by a spike in fear, but longer term feeds into the general cynicism that created the Brexit exit and the Trump phenomenon.

Hanson: the public relations’ needs are changing

This is also why the Hanson phenomenon now requires a different approach. When I produced the story for 60 Minutes that generated the famous “Please Explain”, most of Australia was appalled that this woman from Queensland had a voice in parliament. Now minorities need to be equally listened to, and the small population that votes for her will be satiated if they receive the same treatment as that other minority, the current target of Hanson’s xenophobia, followers of Islam. With Islam, there is a widespread realisation that politicians and other community leaders must engage, to make time to listen.

As Margo Kingston wrote of Hanson this week in The Guardian, “…sneering put downs, nasty labels and suggestions she has no right to be in parliament are utterly counterproductive and will, like last time, increase her support”.

The smartest person in the room is the person who can engage and inspire.

Author Peter Wilkinson

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