Sunday 26 January 2020

Mandy Johnston: Lesson for Enda: you can't lead from behind closed doors

Mandy Johnston

It's not the winning or the losing, it's the taking part. This well-known phrase will haunt Enda Kenny in the coming weeks as he surveys the political landscape in the wake of the outcome of the referendum on Seanad Eireann last Friday. And perhaps in particular he will regret the decision to excuse himself from the RTE and TV3 debates and to then allow his absence to become a central talking-point in mainstream and social media in the closing days of the campaign.

In democratic politics, it is the taking part.

The Taoiseach is a competent and convincing communicator. For reasons best known only to himself, his decision to remain largely silent and in the background during this campaign was either ill-judged or ill-advised.

The referendum to abolish the Seanad was his own initiative and his absence from public debate was therefore all the more noticeable.

Either way, the net result should mean a review of government communications strategies sooner rather than later. One thing is for sure, you will hear the words review, reform, rebuild, reflect a lot in the coming days.

In Government Buildings, a small group of the Taoiseach's closest advisers will board the head-scratching, soul-searching, finger-pointing train today. Next stop Blamesville.

In politics, the pace of the pack is determined by the leader and in Government Buildings they have learnt the hard way that you can't lead from behind those mahogany doors.

The Taoiseach's lack of engagement with the public lately has made him appear distant at best and at times even aloof. This is unfortunate and very surprising given his promising start. In terms of media engagement, he started his stewardship of the Government and the country very well.

In the initial months, Enda was frequently seen delivering news (good or bad) from Europe.

Enda arrived in the Taoiseach's office on a wave of enormous public welcome and support. People wished him well, because if Enda did well, we all would.

However, things have changed utterly. His refreshingly open approach to the media in those early days has changed radically and not for the better.

From 2009, Enda had a plan for Seanad Eireann and he stuck to it. In communications terms, nothing is simpler. Decide on a compelling and coherent message and repeat it at every opportunity.

That's every opportunity, not just the ones you or your advisers happen to like.

When you finally arrive at the stage where you are blue in the face from delivering it, then and only then is your message beginning to make its way through the non-stop chatter that is today's media miasma.

The Yes message was a very simple one. Reject politicians and save money. Done and dusted.

In attempting to counteract a message like that, a fragmented No campaign never really stood a chance in today's climate of hostility towards politicians, or so we and Enda thought.

But on this occasion, the Irish electorate was willing to forgo saving money to save Seanad Eireann. Why?

An objective analysis can either be that voters truly value the Seanad, or that they just don't trust the Government.

It is the latter assumption that will be more damaging for this Government in the longer term and something it will need to deal with swiftly.

The Government never deviated from its plan, but crucially it didn't adapt it for changing circumstances either.

Even when it was apparent that the central message of saving €20m was not working, the Government stuck rigidly with a fundamentally flawed communications plan.

Ministers were forced to repeat a broken message with no new considered approach from the top.

So now the vote is lost and the ultimate political consequences are unknown. Questions about the structure of government and parliament, which require changes to the Constitution, but with few immediately apparent consequences beyond the body politic, have little traction with voters.

The government parties were acutely aware that, historically, referendums have been used by an angry electorate to visit a swift and very public kicking to their behinds with very little consequence to the voter.

For this reason, a newly found discipline on previously standard annual Budget leaks has been impressive.

This referendum didn't deliver the elimination of Seanad Eireann for Enda but it did successfully soak up much of the public debate for the first four weeks of this Dail term. Perhaps the timing of the referendum was chosen for this very reason.

With Budget 2014 just over a week away, we would usually be in the final throes of Budget production both behind the scenes and in public.

We're traditionally treated to an annual interdepartmental hullabaloo of cinematic proportions as some ministers shout from the wings in stage whispers about the fate that is about to befall us all – and their budget.

This yearly ritual is designed to instil fear and dread into an unsuspecting public. The referendum campaign has significantly reduced the time frame for the speculation process.

In public relation terms, this must be a relief. And there ends the good news for the Government. The bad news is that an October date for Budget day significantly lengthens the post-Budget debate timetable.

Communications will become more and not less important.

People, get ready, there's a train a-comin': it is Budget 2014.

Mandy Johnston is a former Government Press Secretary

Irish Independent

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