Image as a political force: Prepare for poll charm offensive

Image as a political force: Prepare for poll charm offensive

Over the weekend Sinn Féin held its annual conference in Derry. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said a referendum on reunification must be held within five years and that Ireland had been “short-changed” by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

There was nothing revolutionary or even mildly controversial in that let’s-all-agree narrative — even if the call for a reunification vote seems dangerously premature. Neither was there anything unpredictable about Sinn Féin’s slick presentation of image as message. Like all serious political parties, and maybe better than most, Sinn Féin has embraced the opportunities offered by today’s 24/7 media portals.

Gone are the days of the melee photograph, when Gerry Adams — Haughey, FitzGerald, Ahern or Kenny or whomever — was surrounded by anyone at hand. Today, each photograph is staged. Young(ish) and handsome to the front, florid-nosed warhorses at the back if they appear at all.

Genders balanced. It is as if a conference is more a catwalk than a policy platform. Like all parties, Sinn Féin knows it has to charm as well as convince and image is an extremely powerful, maybe the most powerful, tool in that process.

Today we publish images from Shooting the Darkness. This is an inspiring, if chilling, anthology of photographs taken during the North’s decades of ethnic bloodshed. It records history in a disinterested way through images that must have changed perceptions.

The book is one of the most powerful arguments for political engagement free from the shadow of the gunmen. It may, or at least it should, have an impact well beyond anything imagined by its contributors or producers.

Another, less noble effort to manage image is having an impact beyond anything its originator imagined or comprehends. US president Donald Trump’s stir-the-mob Twitter stoning of witnesses at impeachment hearings are an indefensible abuse of position. In a sane world they should have a decisive impact on next year’s election but not the one Mr Trump anticipates.

Those who cherish America’s freedoms, to use a phrase designed to create an image of engagement, cannot stand idly by.

Last week’s furore, when Noel Grealish shamefully used the Dáil to stir dark forces came from the same create-an-image playbook. Just yesterday the same issue was highlighted by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives when they promised to limit immigration. That may not be their intent, or within their capacity, but it is the image they want to project.

The importance of media fluency — the need to sound authentic — falls into sharper focus as our election looms especially as there are examples of what it means to stumble when trying to communicate.

Maria Bailey’s swing-gate radio disaster, and her party’s reluctant, belated reaction to it may prove a boon for those who train politicians in the art as they could hardly have got it more wrong.

All of this is, of course, from one side — the politicians’ side of the fence. Maybe it’s time voters made a greater effort to join the dots, one on a par with politicians’ efforts to colour perceptions. After all, the mushroom treatment only works if you succumb to it.

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