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The importance of future-proofing your message

By Mitchell Collier
SAS Group Media and Communications Consultant

On September 14, 2015 Malcolm Turnbull strode into a press conference in a Parliament House courtyard and uttered the following line: “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row, it is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership”. This was of course one of the benchmarks that Mr Turnbull outlined to justify toppling Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.

Given that Mr Turnbull has now suffered his 30th successive Newspoll defeat, it’s fair to suggest that the current Prime Minister wishes that he had have chosen his words differently. This highlights the need to be prescient when conducting media interviews, in order to ensure that your words are future-proof – that is to say that they stand the test of time against both known and unknown future scenarios.

This is a critical element of strategic communications – ensuring that the words you use when mounting an argument today, can’t be used against you in the counter-argument tomorrow. And while political communications are scrutinised to the highest degree, the same pitfalls apply to businesses and individuals. Often it requires a clear-eyed third-party adviser to spot the potential problems long before they arise.

In fairness to the current PM, he is not at all alone when it comes to having a soundbite come back to haunt him. Below we have outlined how every single Prime Minister in the last 30 years has made a one-off line that has later come back to wound them politically (in some cases fatally).

Bob Hawke

At the 1987 Labor campaign launch Bob Hawke triumphantly proclaimed that "by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty". In the three decades since Mr Hawke’s ambitious line has been the subject of much derision, not because it was an ignoble sentiment but because it was completely unrealistic.

Labor’s longest serving PM has since admitted to regretting his “silly, shorthand” remark. Although it should be noted that Mr Hawke did go on to win that 1987 and 1990 elections, and is still regarded as a popular former PM.

Outcome – Damaging, not fatal.

Paul Keating

In 1992 Prime Minister Paul Keating announced a tax package that proposed two rounds of tax cuts without implementing a GST (in contrast to the policy of the Opposition). This led Mr Keating to boast to federal parliament that his proposed tax cuts were “L-A-W, law”.

Mr Keating legislated the first round of tax cuts prior to the 1993 election, however, following the election (which he won) he abandoned the second-round of promised tax cuts. He subsequently said he would redirect them to superannuation but lost the 1996 election in a landslide.

The backflip on the L-A-W tax cuts is considered by most pundits as the beginning of the end for the Keating Government. The fact that the then PM used such an unequivocal title (L-A-W) for his policy meant that when the backflip occurred, the backlash from the electorate was unforgiving, resulting in Labor crashing to one of their worst electoral defeats ever.

Outcome – Fatal.

John Howard

Having lost the so-called ‘unlosable’ election in 1993, in large part to Paul Keating’s ferocious campaign against a GST, by the time the 1996 election rolled around then Opposition leader John Howard wanted to make it clear t that it was no longer policy. Mr Howard emphatically proclaimed "there's no way a GST will ever be part of our policy. Never ever. It's dead."

But it wasn’t dead. At the very next election in 1998, the GST formed the central plank of the Howard Government’s agenda for re-election.

Ultimately Mr Howard snuck home in that election (although Labor won the 2PP vote), did successfully legislate the GST with the help of the Democrats in the senate and went on to win a further two elections. However, the 180 degrees shift he made on the GST certainly saw him lose skin with voters (not to mention almost government) and was used by his opponents to lethal effect for years to come.

Outcome – Damaging, not fatal.

Kevin Rudd

In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argued that climate change represented “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with that statement, it’s easy to see how any action that deviates from a line as emphatic as that would have adverse consequences politically.

By early 2010, with no prospect of legislating an ETS in the senate and new polling showing that political support for a scheme had fallen, Mr Rudd deferred implementation of the ETS. Just a few short months later he was removed in a clinically executed internal coup that saw Julia Gillard replace him as PM.

Although the policy backflip certainly contributed to Mr Rudd’s eventual demise, he was clearly already deeply unpopular with colleagues and was running a dysfunctional government. He most probably would have been removed by the Labor caucus eventually, his decision to dump the ETS only sped things up as it damaged his credibility with the public. It also did not prevent him from returning to lead the nation (briefly) before the 2013 federal election.

Outcome – Damaging, not fatal.

Julia Gillard

In the middle of a closely fought election campaign in 2010 Julia Gillard unambiguously stated that "there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. History shows that she scraped home with minority government and would later introduce a carbon tax to accommodate the Greens.

Gillard’s Prime Ministership was doomed from the moment she went back on that unmistakeable pledge. At best it was seen by Australians as a clear broken promise, at worst an outright lie. It also cemented a perception in the minds of voters that Gillard couldn’t be trusted given she had ‘knifed’ Kevin Rudd for the top job not long beforehand.

Outcome – Fatal

Tony Abbott

Again, it was an interview during the height of an election campaign that led to yet another former PM saying something they would live to regret. In an interview with SBS, former PM Tony Abbott promised that “there will be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS under a Coalition government”.

The Abbott Government’s first budget, delivered less than 8 months after he made that pledge, contained elements that contradicted every assertion in that undertaking. The 2014 budget went on to be one of the worst received in recent memory and by September 2015 Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull.

Outcome – Fatal.

Summary

All the above examples demonstrate the importance of carefully selecting your words when communicating your message. The fact that they were made by politicians who all rose to the highest office in the land shows that even the most well-trained and disciplined operators are fallible on this front.

These communications blunders underline the need to future-proof your words to ensure that they don’t come back to haunt you later. From a communications crisis to a run-of-the-mill interview, the SAS Group has the expertise to advise our clients on how to avoid saying something that leaves you vulnerable to criticism down the track. We understand what the media needs, and we use this understanding to maximise positive exposure for clients, as well as advising on the course of action likely to lead to the largest volume of positive coverage.

The SAS Group is your trusted partner for government, media and corporate engagement.