Refusing to talk

There’s a PR tactic I call “ignore the subject”, in which the person or organisation at the centre of public acrimony refuses to talk about what everyone else is talking about.

The ruling PR thought is that it doesn’t work, and trying it harms the reputation of the person or organisation trying it.  I’ve long thought the option was valid, and now had a chance to learn from someone else trying it.

Leader of the National Party, John Key, employed the tactic successfully in the CuppaGate crisis. In my exploration of why it worked for him, I’ve drawn the lesson that contrary to PR ‘wisdom’ it is possible to choke a negative story by fronting but not engaging with it.

The context of the issue is central to success of the tactic, so please stay with me while quickly recount how it occurred.

The CuppaGate tapes alluded to in a Herald on Sunday story set off the most intense media explosion of Key’s short political career. Key intensified the matter into a contest with media when he complained to police about the recording, which initiated a warning letter to all media and a criminal investigation. He took an ethical stance on the recording, comparing it to the infamous News of the World phone hacking scandal, and claiming the act signalled open slather on the personal lives of politicians and celebrities. Again, this infuriated journalists who felt that it was Key’s ethics at question in the content of the conversation, not their professional ethics in being interested in it.

Three days after the story broke, Key tried another tactic: refusing to talk about it.     It started with a ‘dramatic’ walkout from a media conference in which he had refused to directly answer persistent questions about the recording. Instead he claimed to only be interested in ‘the issues the public of New Zealand are interested in… like the economy’. Key hadn’t really let the moment build up enough steam to warrant a walk out on the grounds of being hounded, but it was the start of his ‘high ground’ approach.

In all media contact following that conference he answered every question related to the ‘cup of tea’ tape with a variation on “I’m interested in the issues that matter…”.

National Party minions talked variously about the public being sick of the matter, and not interested. Polls on Thursday and Friday seemed to bear that out.

He was assisted by other politicians, who had begun to realise that the issue was crowding them out of the public eye smack in the middle of the election campaign. Winston Peters used the event to shoehorn himself into the limelight by ‘quoting’ from the still-secret recording. But by the end of the week he was also sniffing the public mood and arguing for Key to allow release of the audio so the issue could be drawn to a close.

The big question is: did it work? Few things in PR are clear cut and final. After all, at the heart of PR is people. But I think that on balance, the tactic worked extremely well.

Just looking at the appearance of the issue public and media agenda, coverage of the matter fell by about two thirds on the Friday after the Wednesday media conference. 

Opinion polls taken at the end of the week showed National had slipped only about 1% – well within the margin of polling error.

The important factor here is appreciating the difference between being talked about, and public impact.

To many people the matter seemed bad for Key, because the chattering classes prattled continuously about the issue. The balance of positive and negative comment about National and John Key collapsed heavily into negative territory. 

But the general public largely failed to react. This may be related not just to a lack of interest, but a willful lack of awareness. A street poll taken by a radio station indicated that only around 25% of people could even remember who John Key was talking to.

All these components illustrate a vast gap between the in-the-know advisers to public figures and the public “issue blindness”.

That’s why you don’t see the tactic used very often. 

Firstly, most PR advisers only know PR101, which unthinkingly demands the whole ‘front foot’ approach. Like “closure” in pop psychology, the ‘front foot’ approach  rolls off the tongue of anyone fancying themselves as a PR expert. It’s an unthinking, shallow approach, not a principle of human conduct or rule of life.

Secondly, most PR advisers are in the same trap as their clients: they know about the issue, they care about the issue, and everyone they speak to cares about the issue. You’ve got to be a good PR professional to accurately assess the knowledge and mood of the real audience. 

There is one factor I can’t account for, and that’s long term loyalty. I have previously said that the issue permanently dented Key’s reputation. But that’s my conjecture about the long term impact of the event and the tactics immediately deployed, not the technique used three days into the affair.

You don’t see this tactic used that often because it’s damn tough to carry out. It requires the subject to front up and deliberately and self-consciously ignore the conversation of the people they’re talking with. After a life-time learning the rules of social engagement, and wanting the approval of others, it is incredibly hard to ignore people.

If the tactic is to be deployed, here’s some lessons from John Key’s experience:

  1. You must already be popular. You’ll need people to be pre-disposed to believe or favour you.
  2. You need to carry it out early. The approach must seem genuine, not another tactic.
  3. You must change the narrative: create a new story. “This isn’t about X, it’s about Y”
  4. You must create a high moral ground related to what you believe and define as the interests of the public.
  5. You will need to make an enemy of someone: likely to be the media, to change the demon in the narrative from you to another.

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