When politicians are scared to say what they think, they lose.
Most of us watch what we say. We avoid saying things that are hurtful or might meet disapproval, because we want to be liked.
Politicians watch what they say for the same reasons. The task is harder for them because they are usually strongly tribal, adhering to a narrow set of expressed beliefs. Yet there’s also a wider set of constantly shifting social beliefs of the elite (‘political correctness’) which they must be conscious of.
If you’ve ever wondered why politicians seem to say so much of nothing, consider their challenge; watching them closely are opposition tribes, and media, waiting to beat them for expressions which conform too closely to their ideology, don’t conform to things they’ve said or done before, don’t conform to the reigning set of in-things to believe, or don’t conform to the opposition tribes’ ideology.
It’s most often a no-win situation. What-ever you say or do, someone won’t like it.
The most obvious way out of the dilemma is to say nothing meaningful – which is the preferred route of most politicians and public relations practitioners.
The only winning route out of the dilemma is to say what you think, and say it persuasively, but choose your moments wisely.
That’s easier said than done. Consider this radio interview with New Zealand’s social welfare Minister Paula Bennett, on a project that puts on breakfast for students in poor schools. She handles herself beautifully, but gets caught on her refusal to admit that the project exists because there is “poverty”.
She “knows” that if she admits there is poverty her opponents will claim she is admitting her Government has failed. She tries arguing that there is no “extreme poverty”. She tries arguing that there will always be parents who fail to look after their kids, for reasons other than income. But the interviewer hounds her, seeking an admission that there is poverty. Bennett isn’t suckered into admitting there is poverty, but the word game sounds silly and evasive. It’s particularly silly because she’s refusing to admit something that is the very reason she has launched the food project.
Bennett’s fear of admitting poverty is unnecessary. Politician opposition might try to use it against her, but they won’t get far. The public know the poverty is there. Some might hold her Government responsible, but others won’t. And most will be at least a little impressed with the school food project.
When politicians scare themselves into refusing to discuss things they, and we, can plainly see – they lose, because they look silly.
Another example in the public affairs space was the controversy stirred up on the same day by the retiring head of Fonterra, Henry van der Heyden, who admitted he had told a business conference not to trust the Chinese.
Hearing him dancing on the head of a semantic pin about what he said, what he meant, and his apology, was painful. He claimed he just meant that doing business with the Chinese was very different. I felt embarrassed for him. Interviewers asked him to be explicit about what was different. He said people needed to learn the lessons themselves from working with the Chinese.
Again, van der Heyden most probably meant what he said. It’s a common comment among exporters. Coming from New Zealand, one of the least corrupt societies in world, it’s a good rule of thumb to, initially at least, not trust anyone when doing business in one of the more corrupt societies in the world.
His fear of being on the wrong side of the “right thing to say” prevented him from speaking plainly. He could not even find words to describe what doing business with China is practically like. Yet, even the Chinese Government has acknowledge the problem and is trying to deal with widespread corruption.
What happens in these situations is politicians or public figures let their fears of perceptions of others confuse expression of what they think.
The first task is to work out what you think, the second is to work out what others will think, and the third task is to work out how to express your thought so others that are important to you will agree (sooner or later).
That’s why public figures need the help of astute public relations consultants.