Our Head of Public Affairs, Feargal Purcell, recently gave the key note address at the LGMA Communications Conference and spoke on “Managing the message” talking about what makes a message work in politics and business. The following piece is based on the talk Feargal gave and is an extension of the themes discussed at the Conference.
Time spent working in political communication has taught me a few things, amongst them this singular truth: there is no perfect message. Successful political communication depends less on any clever phrasing contained in a message, than it does on how effectively that message is expressed.
The message that works best, the message that is easiest to gather support for and easiest to unify around is the message whose meaning is clearly demonstrated in the actions and behaviours of those carrying it.
But as a species we are reassuringly unpredictable, so perfection when it comes to messaging or any other facet of communications (or life!) is off the table. Make no mistake however, the smaller the “say-do” gap the better. There should be no real difference between who you say you are and how you behave.
Even the most carefully crafted line, one based on well curated research and supported by a broad consensus within the group or organisation and filtered through the experienced minds of the best research operatives is, when the game starts, acutely vulnerable. And what makes it vulnerable is the human factor. People are complicated, fearful, ambitious, uncertain, unconvinced, generous, willing, unwilling. They will interpret what is communicated through a thousand unconscious filters. A further complication is that missteps are amplified as never before through the ease of access to and proliferation of communications channels. If anything is going to decide the success of your message it will be the people carrying it.
These are all words that formed part of Obamas Presidential election (Hope, Change) and re-election (Forward) campaigns. They are basic expressions of optimism, arguably meaningless as stand-alone political slogans, old tropes of politics in fact. Not in Barak Obama’s possession and not in how he expressed them. Their power came from him, from what the words represented and the context in which they were being expressed. He cupped the words in his hands, breathed life and spirit into them and released them skyward like doves. The fact that they have been unceremoniously shot out of the sky since by Make America great again in a source of regret but doesn’t undermine their efficacy. It does remind us that a clear message can be replaced by another, if there is an audience and appetite for an alternative.
A message needs to have resilience. Where is that found? It is born in the motives of the group giving the message life. What is their objective? What is the truth at the heart of the message, does it resonate with real people in their real lives? Do the people carrying the message, via social media or otherwise look and sound like they believe what they are saying? You can’t be convincing unless you are convinced, and your audience, especially an Irish one will hear the doubt if it’s there to be heard. Unless you believe that there is an immutable truth at the heart of your message you will struggle.
This is true of most forms of messaging, political or otherwise. From a company telling its story, a state agency promoting Ireland, a community acquiring an identity, an organisation in crisis, the message needs to be centred on an immutable truth. It needs to have “meaning” in the truest sense of that word. Otherwise the company, community, agency or organisation in crisis simply won’t be believed, no matter how elegant the words.
If you get it right, where your message has truth, meaning and resilience you will find yourself in a virtuous circle of message promotion where it’s all good, the message is heard and believed, and everyone wants in. After all, how do you attack Obama’s Hope message when the person carrying it is its very embodiment?
If you get it wrong you will end up in a vicious cycle of message collapse, changing words on the hoof, being misunderstood, explaining and re-explaining, never catching a break and getting into verbal contortions that the likes of Sean O’Rourke will expose ruthlessly. The difference in atmosphere between the two, virtuous and vicious requires little explanation – its visible in the unconvinced faces of the audience and the behind the scenes squabbles that arise because a voice from a backroom will be heard to cry I never agreed with that line in the first place!
The foundation necessary to give our message, truth, meaning and resilience is what people refer to as purpose, the original higher calling that motivates us to do what we do as organisations or individuals. The why of our jobs and our lives. Without it, truth and meaning are simply not available to us. We can be clever and insightful, but we won’t be convincing, at least not for long. A good example of purpose is the Defence Forces. Look at their message on the homepage of the website www.military.ie “Strengthen the Nation.” It is hard to argue with that message, the validity of those words and what they represent, the purpose they are rooted in and the meaning they express.
It will be interesting to see what the impending General Election (in fairness, it's been impending for three years) provides us with in terms of party messages. I am not just referring to poster slogans but also the language on the key issues that the respective parties will attempt to centre their campaigns on. Will they speak to climate action, housing, tolerance and acceptance of minorities, childcare or the many forms economic messaging can take? Will the messages be founded on a social and economic vision? Will they seek to connect us to our purpose as a people and as a society?
Let’s evaluate their meaning, let’s look for the truth in them, let’s assess their resilience during the campaign. The political system usually gets our attention for an extended period during General Elections, let’s hold their feet to the fire and mine for meaning in their language, after all, it’s the currency of the power we will bestow on them.