Opinion Columnists

Friday 14 December 2018

Leo must not spin out of control with his media message

Varadkar's carefully crafted modern communications may not appeal to voters, writes Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Just over 30 minutes after Leo Varadkar delivered his first address at a Fine Gael party conference as Taoiseach, a video appeared on his Twitter account. The 21-second video showed the Taoiseach surrounded by half-a-dozen party members asking people to "join the conversation" and tell him what they thought of his speech.

After he finishes speaking, there is a brief pause before the party members, clearly acting on instruction, cheer feebly. One member even makes an unfortunate hand gesture during the forced excitement. As they cheer, the Taoiseach looks sheepishly at the ground and tries his best to hold in a grimace. It was all very awkward and naturally social media had great fun mocking it.

In years to come, historians might pinpoint this video as the exact moment Leo Varadkar lost his soul to spin.

The video is unfortunate as his conference speech was quite good. It was delivered with sincerity despite lacking any real passion and he also hammered home his ''aspire to be middle- class'' message. He also steered away from the usual partisan attacks we are used to in these televised political addresses and instead noted what can be done when the parties work together.

The video, his advisers will argue, was aimed at bringing this message to a new generation of voters who were not sitting down to watch last Friday evening at 8.30pm. However, the Government's relentless efforts to emulate the communications tactics of their international counterparts could eventually backfire.

Irish voters are more sophisticated than this Government thinks. People are not easily fooled by their constant barrage of social media content or carefully crafted messaging.

But there is no sign of the Government moving away from this strategy any time soon. In fact, we are lucky we are not being subjected to even more spin than is currently the case.

Freedom of Information documents released to the Sunday Independent last week showed the Taoiseach wanted €1m in taxpayer funding to pay for the salaries of those working in his controversial strategic communications unit. This wage bill was on top of the €5m he requested for the upkeep of his State-sponsored spin-machine.

The salaries of the supposedly cost-eutral unit were to be funded by stripping other departments of communications funding so the Taoiseach's Office could improve the Government's overall public relations output.

For instance, it was proposed that €100,000 was taken from the health budget. As we know, the Taoiseach was granted his €5m budget to run the unit but he didn't the get €1m he wanted to fork out on salaries for his high-powered sultans of spin.

Instead he was given an extra €1m to spend on additional staffing cost across his department. This included the spin unit but also additional staff working on Brexit, data protection and the Citizens' Assembly.

Of course, all this communications spending will eventually result in savings for the taxpayer if the Taoiseach's advisers are to be believed.

But back to social media. Another Freedom of Information request, this time provided to Fianna Fail Meath East TD Thomas Byrne, showed the Government spent €6,520 on advertising and videos on social media for days leading up to and after October's Budget.

You may remember the video of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe going to the printing room to print his Budget books on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. That's what that money paid for. Mr Byrne believes in a Irish political context that's a "huge amount of money" to spend on a few days' worth of videos. It should be noted this is government funding and not Fine Gael money which was used this weekend to host their party conference in the plush surrounds of the Slieve Russell Hotel in County Cavan.

Mr Byrne's own party leader Micheal Martin is not as obsessed with spin as his counterpart. In fact, he seems to actively avoid the media at times. There are constant grumblings around Leinster House about Martin's refusal to appear before the press pack to answer questions while the Taoiseach is happy to do near daily doorstep interviews with reporters. Martin is not good in big groups and tends to get flustered when he is pushed on an issue. Radio studios out in Montrose are his preferred form of communicating with the public.

Martin also prefers to spend his time knocking on doors and pressing the flesh to win over the electorate. Every week he comes to Dublin for his Dail duties he will spend at least one evening canvassing with a TD or a potential candidate for the next election.

He is convinced this is the way to build on the success of the last election - personal interaction over social media engagement. Fianna Failers have been hearing on the doors that voters are beginning to see through Varadkar's carefully crafted image and messaging. Voters want a genuine leader who is more than just a soundbite in a 20-second social media video.

This is all very worthy and feeds into Martin's brand as a honest broker who cares little for spin but he would be acting recklessly to totally disregard modern political weapons of war. Just look at what Russia was able to achieve during the US presidential election last year.

Fianna Fail's social media output is the weakest of all the main political parties. The party's official account tweeted just three times during the Taoiseach's conference speech and there was nothing on its Facebook page.

TDs were also noticeably quiet online during the speech. Fine Gael, as the biggest party in the country has more money than Fianna Fail to spend on honing their message. It also has at its disposal the mechanics of Government, including the Taoiseach's strategic communications unit.

Fianna Fail's obsession with the unit is partly due to fears that it could be used to spin votes away from Micheal Martin.

But it is also seen as a vulnerable target in Varadkar's political arsenal. The more people believe the Taoiseach is a disingenuous product of focus groups and long discussions between PR gurus the more likely they are to buy into the idea that Martin is an authentic and real politician.

Varadkar undoubtedly has his strengths and his rebuttals to political attacks have impressed his party colleagues and Martin is clearly finding the pace of political debate in the wake of Enda Kenny's departure from the Taoiseach's seat in the lower house of parliament more difficult than he expected.

On the other side, senior Fine Gael figures believe Fianna Fail is winning the ground war in constituencies. Fianna Fail's membership is growing and constituency offices are opening up to meet local demands.

Meanwhile, Varadkar will continue to tweet, spin and forcibly smile when he signs off on his weekly video message. But as the months, or - if things do go his way - years wear on, people will catch more glimpses of the Taoiseach's discomfort with the finely tuned world of spin where he now lives.

Sunday Independent

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