Brian Murphy thinks Enda Kenny’s best chance of forming a new government after the general election will come if he sticks to the story of recovery he has been telling all along
PJ Mara was a legend, but he was also a tough taskmaster.
The scene was the Treasury Building. It was May 2002 and, after a week of churning out almost identical speeches for the Fianna Fáil general election campaign, I was bored.
I decided to vary the message slightly and to introduce some new themes into a speech subsequently delivered by Bertie Ahern. Mara was not happy. He told me bluntly that there was to be no further deviations from the core campaign message.
“I want you to repeat the same message over and over again, and when you are blue in the face writing it, write it some more,” was his unceremonious advice.
There was an inescapable logic to Mara’s position. Election messages only gain traction through constant repetition. The best politicians and the best communications experts recognise that, even in the white heat of an election campaign, the public are often apathetic or distracted by their own lives and daily pressures.
There are few members of the public who have either the time or the inclination to hang on the every word of our politicians and to digest every single speech, interview, or press release. In short, people are not listening all the time.
In 2011, some commentators ridiculed Enda Kenny for the amount of times he mentioned his five-point plan, but this was a classic communications performance. The Fine Gael leader brought every single media opportunity back to this plan. By the end of the campaign, floating voters and even those largely unimmersed in politics could recite the plan off by heart. People voted for it in their droves.
Ahern had performed a similar communications accomplishment in 2002. His three P’s of “peace, prosperity, and progress” condensed his entire election agenda down into a memorable and simple soundbite.
Fianna Fáil’s catchy election slogan from that same campaign, ‘A Lot Done, More to Do’, was plastered over billboards throughout the country. It remains arguably the best-known and impactful election slogan in Irish political history.
Whatever people’s attitudes may be to the Celtic Tiger today (and there is a lot of historical revision), back in 2002 ‘A Lot Done, More to Do’ had serious public resonance.
To widespread acclaim, Ahern barnstormed around the country repeating this mantra.
It neatly encapsulated his campaign’s core message that the country was doing well and that people should not change horses while there was still progress to achieve.
They say imitation is the best form of flattery. Although Kenny’s strategists may take umbrage, there is a huge dollop of Ahern’s approach to political communications in Fine Gael’s current election campaign.
In essence, Fine Gael’s 2016 slogan of ‘Let’s Keep the Recovery Going’ is a less catchy variation of ‘A Lot Done, More to Do’. Kenny’s core message is that the country is getting back on track and that people should not change horses while the work of economic renewal has still to be completed.
Nothing will have been left to chance by any of the big political parties in formulating the slogans, the messages, and the policies they will repeat ad nauseam up until polling day on February 26.
Eamon de Valera was fond of saying: “Whenever I need to know what the Irish people want, I look into my own heart,” but, in the modern political era, political parties look into everyone’s heart and mind via focus groups and expensive polling.
This market research gives the big political parties a huge insight into what people actually want. It also allows them to package their policies and messages in a manner that will meet public approval.
We now live in an age of retail or consumer-focused politics, where ideology is less important than serving up the electorate a large slice of whatever pie they require most, and increasingly, Irish elections are becoming more like a science.
Every policy and message has been polled and focus grouped. There are few hostages to fortune. Key announcements are not just thrown out as shots in the dark, they are tested for popularity and credibility beforehand.
After almost eight years of economic hardship, there are real signs that the country has at last “turned the corner”, to borrow Brian Lenihan’s phrase from 2009.
Not all voters will have noted that, the day after the general election was called, the European Commission forecast that Ireland will remain the fastest-growing economy in the EU this year and that our unemployment levels are expected to fall even lower.
Meanwhile, the focus groups are clearly telling the political parties that many people are much more confident about the future. Put simply, people believe in a recovery. The background music to this election is different to 2011 when there was a real public mood that the country was trapped in an economic abyss.
Kenny has been astute enough to concede that the recovery has not reached everyone, but the main communications challenge for his campaign is to own the recovery.
Fine Gael’s key messaging is about persuading the public that Ireland is on the threshold of a new era of prosperity because,in government, they have taken the hard decisions to fix our broken economy.
An important sub-theme of the Fine Gael’s campaign is that the party’s opponents do not have the competence to secure the recovery and that they, in fact, caused the wreckage.
Kenny has a good story to tell the electorate as Ireland bounces back. In truth, at least some of the credit for our economic renewal is rooted in the financial plan spearheaded by Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan — a point that many in Fianna Fáil had been unwisely reticent to make until recently.
The phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” entered the political lexicon in 1992 to describe the unrelenting focus of Bill Clinton’s first successful presidential bid. It would, however, be not so clever to think the general election can be solely defined as “it’s the recovery, stupid”.
Ireland has a relatively small electorate and no party can afford to ignore a large demographic. It was surprising that in his set-piece ard fheis speech, Kenny risked giving offence to Ireland’s 600,000 people with disabilities and our 275,000 farmers by choosing not to mention them even once in his televised remarks.
He may also have insulted some voters by suggesting that they don’t understand economic jargon; however, technical arguments about fiscal space do contravene the cardinal rule of political communications known as Kiss (keep it short and simple).
Though many voters will have been tuned out of this debate, it may be significant in altering the landscape of future political discourse.
For years, Sinn Féin has been repeatedly labelled economically illiterate. But given that Sinn Féin was the only party to get its fiscal space sums right, the potency of this charge is now much diminished.
Dr Brian Murphy is a lecturer in communications at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He is a former speechwriter for two taoisigh.
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