Side Views

Honesty and ingenuity in political communication — Sondang Grace Sirait

January 14, 2013

JAN 14 — Sir Winston Churchill, the great British prime minister who led his country to victory in the World War II, once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

I couldn’t agree more. Make that conversation last for 30 minutes, and you’ll find a lot more to argue against. Most taxi drivers in Jakarta, stuck in traffic, would be more than happy to entertain preconceptions about public policies, political wrangling or economic issues. 

The hottest issue at the moment happens to be a politician — a media darling-cum-party superstar with a charming personality. 

“He makes me feel like he’s one of us, like it’s actually possible to walk into a warung and find him there,” says a taxi driver on my recent ride. 

That “he” refers to Jakarta’s new Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who indeed has been known to walk in and out of street-side coffee stalls unannounced, shaking hands and chatting to residents.

But then again, politicians do that all the time, don’t they, meet-and-greet, posing with children along the way? So why the different treatment when the same ritual is performed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? While one could blame his government’s, and his party’s, heavy political baggage, to say that it renders all of his public communication strategy ineffective is too presumptuous. 

But to suggest there is room for improvement and lessons for other politicians heading on the same course would be, hopefully, the polite thing to do.

As is the norm, fresh, new leaders often enjoy the privilege of a more open-minded public prepared to give them a reasonable chance. But soon, along the way, these politicians also have to face the permanent dilemma between good and bad policies. 

The good ones are made because they’re beneficial, while the bad ones — such as maintaining subsidies and curbing imports — make them popular.

Whether or not voters like them enough to keep them around depends on the public’s own rationality. Here’s where it gets debatable, according to Bryan Caplan, author of “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, who wrote of voters as “worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational, and they vote accordingly”. His concept of rational irrationality basically concludes that so long as it remains cost-free for a person to believe in something or someone, regardless of the truth, it is rational to believe in it. In politics, that could turn into irrational voting behaviour based on biases.

Some of those biases are easily manufactured by constant media exposure, which in all its magnanimity as the Fourth Estate determines through agenda-setting who gets to be the superhero and who gets to play the villain. 

While different news outlets might disagree on who shall save the day, it is largely understood that the President is not currently a favoured son. It is a different case with, let’s say, Jokowi or State-Owned Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan, who rarely gets adverse coverage in the press.

While there might be no such thing as bad publicity for the likes of those two men, for others vying for public support, it’s a winner-takes-all game. Any bad coverage is a PR crisis waiting to happen and thus needs an effective counterstrategy. What makes situations worse is if in times of crises, bad judgment turns into bad statements.

Here is an example. Ever heard of the term “error of judgment”? Former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus used it when apologising for his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss Kahn admitted to making an “error of judgment” with a female subordinate. Closer to home, Singapore’s Speaker of the Parliament Michael Palmer has had to resign over improper conduct and a “serious error of judgment” involving a younger woman.

OK, so you get the picture. Another equally bad statement is “We [or I] shall respect the ongoing legal [or political or whatever] process”. Despite being a politically correct statement, the term has grown to be a popular but uninspired standard first response. An unwise choice, if you ask Magdalena Wenas, president of the PR Society of Indonesia. She calls it “a meaningless, normative answer that oftentimes fails to accomplish what it sets out to do”. If anything, it only shows that whoever makes that statement has no sense of crisis management. Sadly, the news will tell you that ability is still a rare gift.

In the court of public opinion, where the people serve as the ultimate judge, failure to come up with a more intelligible explanation can severely damage one’s reputation or even cause greater harm. Remember, in a world of increased transparency and online information, reputation is a highly valued asset.

This explains why uploading behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wrangling on YouTube proved positive for Jakarta’s Deputy Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Or, as the cab driver said, the idea of accidentally bumping into and chatting with the governor.  The public today, and safe to say the voters of 2014, love the idea of accessibility to authority, even if the event is actually crafted for PR purposes. Gone are the days of restricted, one-way communication. What still remains, however, is the need for meaningful exchanges that go beyond rhetoric. 

To accomplish this, communication experts will tell you sincerity and dedication work wonders. They’ll also tell you that most effective communicators develop their own unique styles based on their personalities and perfect them to accomplish their goals. Abraham Lincoln liked to tell stories when trying to make a point. It was a “weapon he employed with great skill”, wrote the poet Walt Whitman. Aside from mastering political ingenuity in recruiting former opponents to his war Cabinet, as brilliantly told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, “Team of Rivals”, the Great Emancipator also possessed great verbal skills. Through stories and jokes, Lincoln was able to explain his policies and win support for his anti-slavery movement. It became his character, his unique way of communicating.

For politicians, whose existence since ancient Athens has depended on persuading people, excellence requires good communication skills. Sure, there’s the likeability factor, but if not complemented by great interpersonal skills, none will get far. Party machinery aside, paying attention, listening and conversing in a humble, sincere manner are all part of the required skills of an effective political communicator. Two thousand and fourteen and beyond, none of these will go out of season. — thejakartapost.com

* The writer is a Jakarta-based journalist and communications consultant.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.