#Knittinggate and Staying On Message

This post is in part a response to Ed Butler’s thoughtful piece on #knittinggate over at AusVotes 2013, and in part a more coherent (I hope) explanation of my rant today on Twitter about That Photo. It also echoes a comment I left on Amy Gray’s related (and incidentally fabulous) post over on Guardian Australia’s CIF page.

When I said I’d be wandering the streets of Canberra today, wild-eyed and muttering “knitting!” it isn’t because I think it’s bad that the PM knits, or that it shouldn’t be highlighted in a feature article by Women’s Weekly. I don’t subscribe to the Murdochian view that feminists don’t knit: yarn-bombers around the world have certainly proven that.

I simply despair at the photo as a communications strategist, that is, someone who knows that a good or poor communications strategy can make or break the launch of a new car, the release of a new assistance program, the recall of a faulty product, or the re-election of a government.

The problem with the photo is that it doesn’t convey the messages that will motivate voters to change their vote to Labor. And let’s face it, that’s what the WW article is all about – giving the PM an opportunity to speak “directly” to WW readers about why her government should be re-elected and why they should reconsider voting for whichever other party or person they’re currently telling pollsters they’ll vote for.

I know we’re sick of hearing about this government’s “lack of narrative” and poor communication, but these are important in helping the community know what the government is doing / has done for them as individuals and the nation more broadly.

I’m not denying or underplaying the impact of the government’s policy problems. But its communications failures have undeniably compounded voter confusion, disappointment, and disquiet about the competency of the Gillard Government.

Julia Gillard is fighting a battle to the death with Tony Abbott: there can be only one Prime Minister after the election. With less than a hundred days to go til polling day, it’s far too late to be trying to win the popularity vote with warm fuzzy photos. The WW interview should have focussed on the things that Australian voters want to know / be re-assured about: that the PM is strong, competent and working hard on behalf of all Australians. The PM should have (and may well have) emphasised that in the interview, but all of the photos should have emphasised that too.

One of the golden rules of campaigning, and communications more generally, is to stay on message. The definitive example comes from Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, where “the economy, stupid” was famously emblazoned on posters throughout their campaign war-room. While some recall this case study as demonstrating the primacy of economic matters in the minds of voters, the purpose of the slogan actually was to remind everyone working on the campaign to Stay On Message.

Most of us who follow politics closely hate it when politicians Stay On Message. It means we hear the same thing at the morning doorstops, during the breakfast and mid morning chat shows, during Question Time and the following Matter of Public Importance, during the afternoon chat shows, on the tv and radio news, in the post news current affairs programs, and then again on the late news. Not to mention online or in the print media the next day.

But people who don’t follow politics closely (read: most people) will most likely only glance at a paper or the online news during the day, and devote only a portion of their limited attention to the news or a current affairs program after work. They’ll be exposed to that message only once, if at all. So the opportunities to get a message out to the voters must not be squandered. They must always be on message, even when it is a fluffy human interest story for the Women’s Weekly.

We might not like it, but that is how a successful campaign must be run in order to cut through all the other communication detritus in voters’ everyday lives.

Every successful communications strategist knows this.

There is nothing wrong with the PM knitting; whether it be for foreign strangers on the other side of the world, an anonymous philanthropist, or even a friend or relative. Knitting is a far more normal hobby than collecting french clocks or green and gold tracksuits.

But the PM’s communications advisers have made a(nother) blunder by allowing this knitting photo to be taken.

By allowing the PM to be photographed like a modern day Madame Defarge they have been complicit in providing a distraction from, and muddying, her message completely.