Leadership crisis: Why key messages are not enough…

In light of the turmoil in Canberra, the extraordinary dumping of a Government in Queensland and now the sacking overnight of the Northern Territory's Chief Minister there is no question that Australia is facing a crisis in leadership.

There are a whole stack of factors that spark leadership failure – the chief among them being arrogant individuals who frustrate their colleagues and their followers with a dictatorial decision making style.

But I am convinced that another significant factor is at play here.  To be fair to our political leaders, Australia (like much of the Western world) is facing the need for economic reform. That brings with it the need to make changes that will be disruptive and often cause some financial pain.  Inevitably in a parliamentary democracy like ours, that creates easy wins for the opposition – and to be fair – it is their job to scrutinise and cast a critical eye over whatever the Government is proposing.  Often though this scrutiny just becomes a cheap game of scaremongering where the facts are thrown out the window for a few five second grabs on the TV news designed to scare the blazes out of mums, dads and even the family cat.

But here we get to my main point: For decades now the communication strategy of politicians has been shaped by the notion of turning everything into a five second grab for the TV news. This is built around the notion of key messages.  Tony Abbott learned from the master, John Howard on this point.  You will hear him repeating over and over the same phrases – and coming back to them regardless of the question fired to him by an increasingly frustrated press gang.

As a communications practitioner I support the use of key messages – especially in dealing with political reporters who often engage in a game designed to produce a stumble or a stuff up.  (i.e. they aren't really interested in the nuances of the policy issue – they just want to focus on the Minister's performance and ability to hold the party line.)

But there is a much deeper issue and that is the desperate need for leaders to be able to make the case for change.  To do that you need to go well beyond the five second grab on the nightly news.  I understand that people will also be concerned where an action might cause them pain.  However, I believe that the great majority of reasonable people are willing to consider WHY an action needs to be taken.  That, for me, is the really big issue here.  Rather than repeating over and over some five second mantra, leaders need to explain the reasons behind a particular decision and set out the evidence.  That's how the court of public opinion works.  The defendant can't just stand in the witness box and declare over and over: I am innocent – I am innocent.  Their defence counsel needs to produce evidence – call witnesses who will explain to the jury and finally make a closing submission that is convincing and laced with facts.

Problem is that rarely happens.  Take the health care system for example: Show me the analysis that shows the current funding methodology is not sustainable.  Show me the graph that shows that based on the current trend the system will collapse under its own weight within 10 years if we don't make some changes.

Politicians can only blame themselves for the mess in which they find themselves.  Everytime money is tight within Government what is the first thing that gets axed?  You guessed it – the communications budget.  This is the ultimate proof that the politicians, bureaucrats and senior advisers actually don't "get" that effective communication is the cornerstone of successful leadership.  Take away the cornerstone and the building collapses.  Go figure.