An Analysis of Spin Doctoring: The 2007 Australian federal election case study

[Grade: Distinction]

The rise of new technologies allowing mass communication drove the PR-isation of politics. The television’s demagoguing features were quickly realised and embraced by politicians in the Western World and soon became the dominant medium used in political communication campaigns. Suddenly, politicians were television performers competing for popularity, forming what Mark Wheeler’s (2013) coins ‘celebrity politics’. Naturally, a new breed of communication professionals emerged known as ’spin doctors’ or ‘Public Relation personnel, whose sole purpose was to stage- manage televisual performances and events to create and ‘steer’ public opinion (Louw, 2005).

Political leaders need to reach out to their audiences to ‘persuade, inspire and garner political support’ (Cronin, 2008). Cronin notes that ‘political leadership is part theatre’ (Cronin, 2008). He highlights the publics paradoxical demand for political leaders that are unwaveringly warm, relaxed, sincere and likeable and yet, refuse fakery. For politicians to meet these demands, they seek a particular set of skills to connect with and win over audiences, not unlike talented actors (Cronin, 2008). This concept is further encompassed by Louw’s (2005) concept of the ‘celebrity politician’.

This essay explores the role of media in ‘steering’ public opinion through the 2007 Australian Federal Election, one example being successful and one unsuccessful. In 2007, the electoral candidates were Kevin Rudd from the Labor party and John Howard from the Liberal. John Howard had previously served eleven years as Prime Minister, however, new-faced Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, took the reigns. This essay will explore the different techniques employed by each party that contributed to their success and failure. Concepts and techniques will also be briefly discussed in order to evaluate the effectiveness of each party’s approach. Additionally, this essay will aim to expose the symbiotic relationships and roles played by various participants.

Successful Spin

One of the most effective techniques that contributed to Labor’s 2007 election success was what Ben Eltham (2007) coined ‘The Young Voters Theory’. The notion emphasises a successful campaign’s potential influence over young voters who are unlikely to hold strong party alignments (Chen, 2013).

The 2007 Australian federal election was coined ‘the YouTube election,’ with both the Labor and Liberal parties adopting new technologies as a vehicle for communicating with a youthful audience, in an attempt to lure in first-item voters (Howell & Silva, 2010). The online campaigns were an attempt to approach the perceived issue of Generation Y’s disengagement from politics. The revolutionary use of new media in Australia’s public sphere naturally attracted widespread attention through both online and mainstream media. However, it was the Labor party that successfully garnered the most observation and opinion; attracting more media reports and hits than Howard’s online campaign and its URL quickly succumbing to the wider Australian lexicon (Kissane, 2009).

Rudd’s cross-media digital campaign was specifically designed to target young voters by providing a ‘route to youth,’ via the online realm. The successful execution of Rudd’s online campaign branded Rudd as a new generation leader. The ‘Kevin07’ branded website successfully integrated all the new and old media employed by Rudd’s new technologies approach (Kissane, 2009). The website exploited the realms of Web 2.0; fully equipped with a video channel, links to other social media platforms like Facebook and MySpace and promoted a K-mail service that delivered Labor campaign updates.

Even more noteworthy was the accompanying blog that enabled readers to contribute to trending issues and policies through the means of user comments. This unique feature alongside extensive multimedia content demonstrated a uniquely inclusive political media tactic that allowed readers to engage with what seems like direct dialogue with the candidate.

Rudd’s use of a Facebook account helped build a ‘profile’ and establish what seemed like a personal relationship with the audience. This profile building tool contributed to the over brand development of ‘Kevin07’ that made Rudd’s campaign so successful. The mainstream media responded to the introduction of social media to political communication by reporting on Rudd’s online ‘friends’ that surpassed Howard’s measly online supporters. This coverage worked in Rudd’s favour by communicating to the public that Rudd is a more likeable character. It also demonstrates that Rudd utilised this online tool more effectively that the opponent.

Mark Wheeler’s (2013) concept of ‘celebrity politics’ is a political campaigning technique where the politician is sold by drawing a crowd in, create a political narrative, and communicating the narrative-based agenda through the means of popular culture (Semmler, 2014). The later is achieved in this example as Kevin Rudd was successfully able to create a celebrity profile through the formation of his ‘Kevin07’ digital campaign, conversationally communicating his agenda to a social media savvy youth.

Additionally, Rudd’s spin team identified the ‘spreadable’ nature and opportunities of participatory media forms in a changing media environment, a feature central to the success of the online campaign and Rudd’s media success. This is reflected in the post voting analysis that revealed young Australian voters swarmed towards the ALP, who lured ‘in excess of 70% of the two-party preferred vote amongst 18-29 year old voters’ (Kissane, 2009). Despite polls showing Australia youth’s preference for Labor transitioned months before the website was even launched (Kissane, 2009), the successful integration of new and old media, cultivating a highly interactive multi-platform campaign, was central to continuing Rudd’s public relation success.

Additionally, the ‘gently self-mocking’ Kevin 07 merchandise was another tool used by Rudd’s spin team to ‘humanise’ what campaign strategist, Camilla Cooke, labelled a ‘sometimes dour candidate (Bruns, Wilson & Saunders), further appealing to younger voters. The website also made campaign merchandise, which went viral, available for purchase, further contributing to the ‘celebratisation’ of modern day politics. Rudd’s spin team’s efforts to break down communicative barriers between Rudd and the youth of Australia through conversational tone and humorous behaviour also served to build positive political identity that built upon ‘national’ and ‘collective’ identities that citizens would identify and relate with and create a sense of ‘political belonging’ (Louw, 2005).

The Kevin Rudd campaign successfully monitored current trends in the media and responded to their advantage, an effective tool to ‘steer’ public opinion. For instance the ACTU had launched a campaign against the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation. Rudd’s campaign was quick to respond with an attractive solution targeting ‘working families’. Additionally, after Howard’s eleven year reign, the media had a high interest in the leadership transition. The Labor spin team identified this opportunity to promote a new, younger figure that successfully appealed to younger voters and working families.

The modern political sphere utilises marketing and advertising to ‘sell’ their politician as a product; this is achieved by staging celebrity performances to market the politician as a brand that will appeal to a particular voter group (Louw, 2005). Newman (1999) explains this technique as the ‘mass marketing of politics,’ which reflects the likes of buyer and seller. The term ‘market segmentation’ refers to the process whereby the marketer ‘identifies the needs of different audiences, isolates the unique benefits of his or her product, and then targets specific segments with different advertising appeals’ (Newman, 1999). Rudd demonstrated successful market segmentation through promoting different policies and appeals through particular mediums to reach specific audiences. An example is Rudd’s YouTube videos covering climate change, an issue relative to young Australians who are more likely to view the online message.

Rudd’s media team used their knowledge of journalism practices to earn media coverage. The term ‘soundbite’ is used to describe ‘how politicians, adapting to the logic of media formats, have sought to organise their public communication around brief, pithy and memorable phrases’ (Davidson, 2005, p. 13). Journalists employ the ‘inverted period’ approach when constructing stories, where the onus in on quickly grabbing the audiences attention; this is effectively achieved through the use of a catchy slogan or sound bite. Because the soundbite is so attractive to journalists, a successful soundbite is likely to influence the news agenda.

Rudd’s PR advisors exploited their knowledge of journalistic formulas and their demand for ‘snappy one-liners’ by harnessing the ‘Kevin 07’ and ‘working families’ slogans and ultimately, earning increasing their coverage (Louw, 2005). The

soundbite was so effective in promoting the campaign because television news is such a powerful medium for political communication (Young, 2008). It also gave the campaign a brand name, which can be promoted with ease. Another one of Rudd’s most popular soundbites was his reference to a laptop as ‘the toolbox of the 21st century’ following his promise to get ‘every Australian kid… wired’ (Young, 2008). The Labor spin team also provided visual props of Rudd holding up a laptop adding to the total effect of television news.

Rudd’s team’s emphasis on working families branded Kevin Rudd as in touch with young Australians and demonstrates spin doctoring techniques that ignite ‘national identity’ and belonging. Rudd’s ‘working families’ slogan built upon representations of national identity and belonging. This typical image of a relatable Australian identity draws in a collective community and creates a sense of belonging for his voters (Younane, 2008).

Unsuccessful Spin

The Liberal campaign leading up to the 2007 Australian federal election will form the case study for unsuccessful spin.

Alongside Rudd’s digital campaign, Howard’s spin doctors also launched an online campaign intended to mobilise young voter’s support. Despite lacking the easily branded soundbite of ‘Kevin07,’ the ‘JohnHoward2007’ Liberal Party YouTube channel received critique for looking overbearingly awkward. In contrast to Rudd’s conversational YouTube performance, Howard’s were ‘stilted’ and ‘formal’ with an ‘address to the nation’ format featuring Howard at his desk in a suit with the Australia flag behind him (Flew, 2008). The product simply replicated the likes of a television press release announcement, defying the culture of YouTube (Thorsen, 2012). His ‘Good morning’ introduction received critique for misunderstanding the timeless internet realm for the likes of broadcast television (Flew, 2008). The different approaches reflect the parties contrast in understanding of different social media platforms and their functions.

The Age reported the Liberal leader’s attempt to connect with young voters like ‘watching an old geezer in a tracksuit stumbling on his new iPod headset and into a rave party when out on his early morning constitutional’ (The Age, 2007). If this is any indication of Howard’s online media performance, we can assume the younger masses were not overwhelmed. This particular newspaper article emphasises the role journalists play in cultivating public opinion and the importance of PR to effectively control or ‘steer’ it in the right direction.

Leading up the election, Howard was accused of employing an ‘unrelenting negative smear campaign against the opposition’ (Kevin Rudd). A smear campaign involves researching the opponent then leaking potential detrimental information to journalists (Louw, 2005) in the hope of deteriorating their reputation. However, the unsuccessful execution of Howard’s smear campaign backfired for the Liberal party, exposing ‘pathetic’ efforts to reclaim voters and infuriating tax payers who were

supposedly funding the campaign. Naturally, the media extensively covered the political uproar surrounding the smear campaign, creating ‘hype’ leading up to the election. The kind of media coverage was negative and accusing, with National Nine News presenting a segment ‘PM denies dirt fund: The Prime Minister John Howard has denied that tax payers have funded a smear campaign against Kevin Rudd’ (National Nine News, 2007). Howard responded to the PR crisis by creating what Louw (2005) coins ‘plausible deniability’. However, the inability to ‘bury’ the accusation merely resulted in a deteriorated trust between the candidate and his voters.

In contrast to Rudd’s successful utilisation of effective soundbites, Howard’s ‘go for growth’ slogan disappeared during the campaign amidst an interest rate rise. A slogan is intended to be repeated and reinforced and therefore, consistency is key. Losing a fundamental campaign slogan to an economical paradox questions the Liberal’s legitimacy to power. Dropping and changing soundbites also weakens the overall strength of the campaign and deteriorates the ‘brand’ as a whole. The Howard government’s ironic use of slogan amidst a rise in interest rates demonstrates poor spin doctoring that instead of ‘steering’ positive public opinion, weekend the campaign logistics.

The 2007 election marked a shift in the political communication landscape. The candidates use of new technologies was a new phenomena for both parties. The execution of Kevin Rudd’s campaign was successful because of the effective use of new technologies to reach the right audiences; the ability to monitor media trends and respond advantageously; and their ability to produce material that will be favoured by journalist and likely to control agenda. The successful execution of these PR techniques formed a strong brand, ‘Kevin07,’ for the duration of the campaign. It was these techniques there ‘steered’ the public opinion in his favor, ultimately, earning more votes and winning the election. Howard’s campaign was unsuccessful because of his ill-judged use of new technologies that revealed an misunderstanding of different platform audiences; his unsuccessful smear campaign, which backfired causing negative PR; and his relatively poor soundbites that were logistically questionable and caused marketing inconsistencies, which weakened the effect of his campaign.




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