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Think before you speak

30 Newspoll reasons to think before you speak

Accidentally said something you will really, really regret? As Ray Jordan writes, you are rubbing shoulders with illustrious company.


Nothing is set in stone, so goes the oft-quoted idiom. Things can change but often with great difficulty. However, it seems that when it comes to realpolitik, some things really are set in stone, no matter how much you would like to be able to change them.


There is nothing tangible or physical about words. They are just words. Yet once uttered they are uttered for eternity, as permanent as the ancient pyramids. And, ill-conceived and poorly thought through, they can come back to take a monumental bite of the utterer.


History is littered with countless instances of the embarrassing, bizarre and just plain sad, where the speaker would, in hindsight, have reconsidered his words.


Sometimes you almost must laugh at the folly involved.

There is the famous example of English bowler Maurice Tate saying Don Bradman would never get a run in England, describing him as a ‘rabbit’ after dismissing him cheaply in Bradman’s first test.

Two years later Bradman scored 974 runs in the 1930 Ashes series in England.

Then there was Digital Equipment President Ken Olsen who said: “Who the hell wants to have a computer in their own home?” and the Decca Records representative who said: “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out” when rejecting a group called the Beatles in 1962.

Oh, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace for our Time” quote after meeting with Adolf Hitler turned out to be a little off the mark.

If traditional media isn’t enough, social media has increased the likelihood for such things returning to haunt the speaker in exponentially scarier and often more embarrassing ways.

In our own political backyard Prime Minister Turnbull used the 30-consecutive negative Newspolls of then PM Tony Abbott, as a reason to challenge for the leadership.

In 2015, Mr. Turnbull said that the Coalition’s poor polling was evidence the Government should change leaders, on the grounds that Labor was on track to win the election against Mr. Abbott.

Specifically, Mr. Turnbull said: “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”

The Prime Minister reached Mr. Abbott’s 30 losses this month, and may set a new mark at some time in the future.

As the 30th loss became inevitable, the Prime Minister was forced to begin backtracking and arguing that leadership change was history, and poor opinion polls were not a metric for a leadership challenge.

The problem is that this often provide others with opportunity. Take for instance, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who said opinion polls did in fact represent a benchmark for the Liberal leadership.

Considered a potential future leader from the party’s right, Mr Dutton created further room for political leverage by agreeing that 30 bad Newspolls in a row presented a legitimate trigger for a leadership challenge.

Of course, Prime Minister Turnbull now has claimed the 30 Newspolls argument as just one of several reasons for his challenge to Mr. Abbott.

Alas, the other arguments lacked the numerical precision, which can be latched on to, offering very little grey area room to manoeuvre.

Thirty becomes the line in the sand. It was a line that never needed to be drawn, but once marked was never going to be washed away by the tides of time or reason.

The only defence left can often be the rather lame ‘blame the media’ defence, a defence which Mr. Turnbull tried to use, with telling ineffectiveness.

When it comes to politics, establishing clear, unambiguous key messages is a fundamental part of the game – a game where getting it wrong comes with more serious consequences than incorrectly predicting a young batsman’s potential.

Establishing key messages is a vital part of political and corporate life. Whether it’s the first-year PR undergraduate or the Prime Minister, the process and importance of establishing and practicing key messages is well understood.

But the problem is that this process often only goes part of the way.

Key messages must be appropriate for now, but the challenge is to ensure they can be safely read with hindsight at some point in the future.

Perhaps no longer specifically relevant or topical at that point, they still should not compromise or come back to haunt the speaker.

A set of key messages must be future-proofed to avoid the embarrassment that has now become Mr. Turnbull’s gaffe.

The process for developing key messages is relatively simple but necessarily rigorous. It is very easy to fall into the trap of extracting a few key soundgrabs, without fully appreciating their implications.

Any set of key messages must be stress-tested against prevailing and potential circumstances, ensuring they are easily understood and consistent with presenting the best possible position of the entity being represented.

Messaging that includes points that could subsequently be used to return fire at some stage in the future should be avoided.

Being sidetracked by conjecture is needless and potentially destabilising, and can be avoided with astute planning and preparation.

An intensive media training course is one of the most effective means of putting the key messages to the test. Media training is not a Dorothy Dix session of soft questions to bring out key messages, but one where the spokesperson chosen is grilled to deal with current and future eventualities.

This shake-down almost certainly results in refinement of the messaging but can lead to significant redrafting. Either way, this will be in the best interests of the entity facing the media.

Nothing is set in stone, and even a crayon can mark a headstone.