Federal elections are always a great time to see how communications strategies get rolled out and adapted in real time.
The stakes are high, the coverage intense, and the ups and downs are magnified beyond what is reasonably needed for a balanced assessment.
The current campaign is no different, but has an interesting wrinkle. For some months now, the issue of the Prime Minister’s character has been attracting increasing media and public attention. While policy debate is ongoing, the character issue has been more prominent than in previous elections, and therefore may influence the result to a larger extent than in years gone by.
When the election is all done and dusted, as a critical moment we may look back to the moment in early February when Channel 10 political editor Peter Van Onselen produced leaked texts from an unknown cabinet minister describing PR Scott Morrison as a ‘complete psycho’.
The revelations led the news and captured the public’s attention. And while it’s not unusual for politicians to leak against each other, this particular description seemed to hit a nerve. For some observers, the words did a good job of crystalising every doubt about the PM’s character into one memorable phrase.
What’s more, the revelation was put by Van Onselen to the PM during a Canberra Press Club speech, out of the blue, adding to the drama.
Suddenly the question of the PM’s character was front and centre, because he had seemingly been exposed by a member of his own cabinet – not a political opponent. This was followed by other Liberals in NSW and federally making pointed remarks about the PM, on and off the record, further reinforcing the issue and keeping it in the headlines.
As the Australian Financial Review’s Political Editor, Phillip Coorey, put it: “Unlike the previous two elections in 2016 and 2019, which were fought over policy – mainly Labor’s policy – as well as meaty issues like climate change, this one will be squarely about playing the man. By both sides, it seems.”
Once an idea takes hold, it’s hard to get rid of or fight against. That’s the problem the PM is facing, because ‘complete psycho’ struck a chord with the media and the public. It had such strength due to it fitting the prevailing narrative of existing concerns about the PM’s character, framing them and giving them a memorable form of words.
The phrase also brings to bear not just issues right now, but those stretching back to late 2019 when the PM went on an international holiday during the bushfires, reminding the public that there were issues before COVID hit our shores.
The PM and his team are now in a bind. The character issue is not going away, and realistically, there is probably little that he can do to effectively counter it. A bunch of family and women-friendly photo-ops probably won’t help because the idea of his poor character is entrenched among voters, whether it’s true or not.
Perhaps the best hope he has is it focus on his economic management credentials through the pandemic, and also push as many vote-winning policies as possible. Even this is not easy as economic doubts grow and people worry about rising interest rates at a time of record high household debt.
In an ideal world, effective strategies against an idea talking hold are to act early against it by proving contrary information and example behaviours, repeatedly – and do nothing to reinforce it. If the PM had put together a run of good form after the bushfires, which he almost did during the first year of COVID, this would not have been such an issue.
The trouble is that his actions at many steps along the way have poured fuel on the fire and helped people solidify the character issue in their minds. The effect of specific actions on long-term reputation can’t be underestimated, and keeping those examples piling up has damaged the PM’s reputation and weakened him in a tight election.
The trouble now is that even if he wins the election, the character issue remains, and he will only have won despite it. After that, it will perhaps only be a matter of time before it rears its ugly head again, doing further damage down the road.