Govt relations 101: The first rule of successfully engaging with politicians …

Perhaps the seminal moment for me in understanding the reality of politics in Australia occurred in a lift about 10 years ago.

I was heading off to grab a cup of coffee with a friend and colleague who was heavily involved in one of the major political parties.

You know the thing about lifts … especially when they are crowded: Everyone stands like a tin soldier, looking forward, their backs turned to the people behind.

As we rode the crowded lift down to the ground floor my colleague muttered to me: This reminds me of party politics – you're more worried about the people BEHIND you – than the ones in front who you can see! (i.e. at least you can see if they are about to stab you in the back!)

That is an observation that is worth contemplating, especially if you or your organisation needs to engage with politicians and Government.  For example, too often we assume that a Government or party has an agreed view on any particular topic.  While they might talk about "the policy" and even be seen to toe the party line in media interviews, the reality can be very different.

The factions within the Labor Party in Australia are well documented.  It was said at one time that the right of the NSW Labor Party hated the Left Wing of the party even more than they hated the Liberals!  But the same thing applies in the Liberal party.  And even in the so-called factions there are pockets of divisions.  When it comes down to it most politicians (out of sheer necessity if they are honest) have to focus on their own self interest.  Job number one if you're an MP is to retain your seat.  If that means taking a contrary view to the party leaders, well that's just the way it goes.

My point is that if you have to deal with government on matters of public policy, don't assume that you are dealing with some singular view of the particular issue or situation.  You may find within Government that there are actually three or even four quite different views.  (And they may change as pragmatic necessity dictates).  The Minister thinks one thing, the Premier or Prime Minister thinks something quite different and the Chief of Staff to another Minister is madly advocating the opposite of both of them!

Trying to reach a consensus is often the best you can do.  So anyone wanting to do business with Governments and politicians needs to learn that flexibility is essential.  The old saying rings true:  Politics is the art of compromise.

Why a brand refresh can spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R

When companies are seeking a new start or seeking to reposition themselves in the minds of customers they will often be drawn towards the refreshing of their brand.

This often results in a new logo and a significant shaking up of the look and feel of the brand.

There are times when this is absolutely appropriate.  Your logo might be looking old and tired or you might need to connect with a different audience and your visual expression of your brand just does not express what you are promising (and able) to deliver.

But a brand refresh can also result in you losing the very thing that made you attractive to people in the first place.  Way back in the 1970s before anyone had even heard the phrase "reality TV" a couple of blokes stumbled into the offices of Australia's leading TV network with an idea for a new program.

The Leyland Brothers had this idea for a show based on their amateur filming of their family adventures in the Outback.  The network agreed and the show was a huge hit.  Every week millions of viewers across the nation would tune in to watch Mal and his brothers digging their four wheel drives out of mud or encounter a snake or kangaroo on a bush track.  With a smash hit on their hands, the TV network suggested that it was probably time to help the family out with some professional film gear along with the full kit that makes for what in the TV they call "high production values".  That is basically code for the fact that the framing of each shot is perfect, the lighting is well adjusted and the sound captured in full surround. (Well, probably not that professional but you get my drift.)

So next time the show was filmed there was a lot more gear, a lot more people and a slick, professional presentation resulted.

Problem was the next series didn't rate so well.  What went so wrong?  Had people fallen out of love with the Leyland Brothers?  Nope.  The real problem was that the network in its zeal for success had failed to recognise that what really attracted viewers to the Leyland boys was the fact that the show WAS a bit clunky.  People liked the authentic framing of shots produced by an amateur operator – the fact that the camera wobbled, the sound was a bit messy and the shots more equivalent to a family picnic video than a hollywood production.  That was the core to the brand of the Leyland Brothers.

The same thing applies to brands.  Sometimes in their desire for success, companies bring in the corporate makeover artists and destroy the very thing that made it successful in the first place.  There is a liquor shop down south that I go to sometimes.  It has dusty wooden floors, the wine is stacked up all over the place in crates – it's a jungle in there! ... and I love it!  Now I see they're about to move into a shiny, new building where I suspect everything will be neatly arranged, marble floors, high metal shelves with everything labelled by computer.  Uh Oh.  Now rather than looking like the exciting little den where I might discover some dusty old classic wine, I am worried I am going to get the very same thing I get in one of those massive liquor chain stores.  The charm will be gone and with it the brand attraction.

There is a place and a time for a company to refresh its brand.  But to quote Billy Joel:  "Don't go changin' to try and please me ... I love you just the way you are … "

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.

Why many bus shelter ads are a waste of money

One of the greatest lessons of my time in TV came one day sitting in a large editing suite used to make commercials.

I’d been in and out of the place for years but one day noticed something that struck me as incredibly odd.

Despite the millions of dollars worth of hi-tech gear, in the preview room, where the editor and clients sat around to view the finished product, was a small television screen – pretty much the standard size you’d find in most lounge rooms.

I remember turning to ask the Director: "Why do we have such a crappy TV in this room – it is the size of a postage stamp compared to everything else – why don't we have a giant screen?  Even as the words were leaving my mouth, my brain caught up: Yes, the TV commercials were made in a high tech studio but where they had to do their work was on the standard suburban telly sitting in any of a million lounge rooms.  In those days, we used to joke about the number of mums and dads whose television sets produced dodgy colours, buzzing sound and flickering interference.  In other words, a piece of artistic and technical wizardry would ultimately have to prove its worth on a Rank Arena that was a televisual disaster zone.

Now, of course, in these days of plasma and super-dooper HDTV – the quality of TV reception is much higher.  But in those days, it was estimated that a high percentage of the viewing population did not know how to properly set the colour and contrast controls on their TV.  So, as much as you might be sweating over the quality of colour tones, your Mum sitting at home couldn’t tell the difference anyway!

So what does all this have to do with those bus shelter ad shells?  Quite simply the same principle applies.  I find up to 50% of them are unreadable as I drive past in my car.  So what’s the point?  Yes, there are the few dozen people who catch the bus – but surely we are not going to appeal to them only and ignore the 10,000 cars driving past every day?

So why do ad agencies insist on creating bus shelter ad shells with tiny words and complex images that simply cannot be read unless you are standing 1 metre away with 30 seconds to stare?

In my book, that’s the heart of the problem.  These ad shells are being designed by a designer sitting in an air-conditioned studio on a giant screen in front of their face.  That’s not the way to determine if the sign will work.  Here’s a tip for anyone about to rollout a campaign including ad shells.  Minimise the words, make the images bold and clear … and when you view the creative, imagine yourself in a car doing 80kms down the freeway and do the readability test.  Without that, you’re probably just wasting your money.

The saddest joke I've ever heard

There is a delicious scene in the British comedy series, Black Books, where Bernard, the dysfunctional proprietor confronts a customer.

The customer has foolishly walked through the front door and started poking around looking to purchase … you guessed it – a book!

Of course, the poor old customer cops a verbal hammering from Bernard who is habitually consumed with his ongoing life-crisis.  Book!  What do you mean you want a book?!  (And then proceeds to try to throw him out of the shop).

Older fans of British comedy will no doubt remember too the oft-referenced scene from Yes Minister where the hapless Jim Hacker discovers that the Government has, for some time, been running a brand new hospital with absolutely no patients.  There is that wonderful scene in which Sir Humphrey and his public service colleague, Sir Ian Whitchurch, are discussing the best way to run a hospital: 

Sir Ian Whitchurch: "First of all, you have to sort out the smooth running of the hospital.  Having patients around would be no help at all."
Sir Humphrey: "They'd just be in the way."

It is all hilarious but rather tragic at the same time.  Why?  Because the attitudes and behaviour depicted in comic sketches ain't that far from the truth.  Been into a retail outlet recently and been ignored by the shop assistants conducting a private conversation while trying desperately NOT to make eye contact with you?  (You can almost hear what they are thinking … what does he/she want?  Not another bloody customer!)

Then there are those inappropriately named public service organisations where rules, regulation, governance, audits, individual work plans and endless meeting agendas dominate discussion while the actual service is relegated to words sitting in the strategic plan.  

To keep the theme rolling, I am reminded of an old Morecambe and Wise sketch where a moustached bureaucrat with an abrupt manner is depicted picking up the office phone: Hello, London Bus Service – how may we HINDER you?

But this is no joke.  These are just symptoms of a disease that ravages many large organisations that have simply lost their way in the myriad highways and byways of corporate life.  That's why, as silly as it sounds (and I know it sounds ridiculous) there is a critical need for organisations to constantly ask the question: Why do we exist?  Better still, who are we serving?  And, by the way, what do they think about what we do and how we do it?

The biggest cause of this illness is the way in which many senior executives seek to hide themselves away from their customers.  They build corporate headquarters and ensconce themselves on the top floor behind doors and glass panels.  God forbid they should ever cross the paths with one of the people they are supposed to be serving – let alone a member of their own staff.

It is understandable that as a corporate structure is built, as new positions are added and the bureaucratic machine takes on a life of its own – that many companies find themselves marooned in a sea of ignorance.  But it is a dangerous ocean to chart and sooner or later the corporate ship will drift on to the rocks of corporate peril.  That, I can assure you, is no laughing matter.