Good governance: What does the ‘more saleable’ Malcolm Turnbull need to do to improve government comms?

Prime Minister designate Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull has pledged communications from his government will be “seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture”. Miranda Ward spoke to lobbyists and political consultants about what went wrong for Tony Abbott and what we can expect to see from the new Prime Minister.

It is probably quite telling that Malcolm Turnbull used his first speech after the spill last night to pledge a new communications style for the government. The former lawyer and media player is well-known for being very quotable – but what is the role of good communications when it comes to government?

Susan Redden Makatoa, Ogilvy Public Relations group managing director of corporate and lobbyist, told Mumbrella: “This is about, to coin a cliche, true two-way engagement, it’s not about lecturing from the rooftops and that’s where people fell down. 

“I noticed there was a lot of buzz on Twitter last night around slogans and one words and jokes about the boats, which shouldn’t be joked about, but that’s what they were tying to the Tony Abbott time. There was some commentary that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t repeat himself, repeat himself, repeat himself.

Redden Makatoa

Redden Makatoa

“People have actually cottoned on to some of those tactics which didn’t sit well. Where, not just this government but other governments in Australia, have struggled it’s about the conversation and reacting and I know Malcolm Turnbull spoke last night about [New Zealand PM] John Key.

“John Key has pushed a reform agenda, explained what he was trying to do, got support and put some tough reforms through. In Australia I would point to [NSW Premier] Mike Baird as somebody who has done that extraordinarily well.”

Effective communication

Marketer and political strategist Toby Ralph was in agreement, saying: “The trick of political leadership is not big ideas or smart strategy; it lies in being able to explain where you propose taking the country, and getting as many people as possible to take a step in the same direction. It’s that leadership narrative that was missing with Tony Abbott.

“People knew what Tony Abbott stood against, but not what he stood for. He’s was strong on negatives, weak on positives because no vision was outlined,” he said.

“Yes, he axed the tax, yes he stopped the boats – but what did he want to start and where did he want to take us? The narrative was lost.”

Ralph, who has also previously worked for the Liberal Party, said “a leader needs a decent explicable plan and a relationship with the media to do this well”.

“Tony Abbott was voted in – or more accurately Rudd was kicked out – because of an emerging economic mess and a Government that was spending almost $150m a day more than it was raising. But Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey seem to have thrown in the towel on that as they were still squandering $95m a day more than taxes allow and complaining about revenue shortfalls rather than spending addictions,” he said.

“Robb, Bishop and Morrison led achievements for the Abbott Government, but many of the rest were pretty pedestrian.”

On the Prime Minister designate Ralph said he’s a more “saleable candidate”.

“Malcolm Turnbull is economically to the right and socially to the left and a very accomplished communicator. He’s a much more saleable candidate – assuming he doesn’t let his brilliance prevent the delegation and trust of colleagues that’s imperative to success in the job,” Ralph said.

“Quite apart from his saleability, Turnbull had to be elected as not doing so would lead Labor to use his challenge speech as their next election campaign,” he added.

The social story



Bastion S+GO director of government relations Sean Sammon expressed surprise in the lack of noise on social media from Liberal MPs.

“Most surprising were how quiet the liberal MP’s are in expressing their opinion on social media,” he said.
“In the crucial moments between announcing the challenge and his new leadership position, only Turnbull used Twitter to proclaim his position. Australia has only ever seen three Liberal MP’s use Twitter to proclaim position, the others have all used TV.”
Malcolm Turnbull tweet
“The fact Turnbull used his own channels to put out statements which were jarring to the public is very interesting,” said Sammon.
“While traditional or conservative politicians are more inclined to ‘play it safe’, Turnbull has put information the public’s hands (in a view to earn their trust early perhaps). Doing so, he distanced himself from Abbott, who has been accused of being a puppet in the past. Across Australia the regional interest, measured by Google searches, is strongest in ACT, and weakest in QLD.”
On Turnbull’s use of Twitter overnight Redden Makatoa said: “He’s always been a bit of a master of social media, this is the guy who’s dogs had Facebook pages at one point. He does have a really personal way of talking.”
Change in message


For Robyn Sefiani, managing director of Sefiani Communications Group, Turnbull’s announcement was “perfectly executed change communication”.

“He clearly stated why change was needed, how he would lead that change through his different leadership style and what the benefits would be for Australia and its people,” she said.

“As a communicator, I found his choice of ‘persuade’ interesting, as many might view the concept of persuasion in a negative light. However it is part of Turnbull’s strong belief that to undertake hard reform you need explanation and healthy debate to enable Australians to understand the need for change, embrace it and move forward with the government’s view.

“This is markedly different from, as he said, Tony Abbott’s leadership style of captain’s calls and lack of consultation.”

Edelman’s head of public affairs Nic Jarvis agreed, saying Turnbull showed “what an effective communicator he is” when declaring his bid to become PM to media yesterday afternoon.

“Without notes he spoke for six minutes, articulating his vision for the country and his hopes for the future while demolishing Tony Abbott’s divisive leadership style,” Jarvis said.


“Turnbull has a big job in front of him, but he is one of the most effective communicators in the government, able to explain complex issues so everyone understands. There’s no denying Australia has big challenges which need to be met with clear and confidence-inspiring plans that instil optimism.

“And they need to be explained using a narrative that brings people along on the journey. We can hope Turnbull’s communication skills will be reflected in his new government and how he talks to the Australian people.
“Never afraid of a challenge (as in his support for marriage equality) Turnbull is a conviction politician not afraid to stand for something he believes in. He is a pioneer in the use of social media by politicians and an avid user of new technology. As the country’s 29th Prime Minister, we can expect those skills to be reflected in his leadership and his government. “

On what the change in leader could mean for lobbyists, Ogilvy PR’s Redden Makatoa was confident many ministers and staffers will remain unchanged.

“Effective advocacy is about finding the common purpose, you can’t just come in and bang the table and say this is what I want, give to me, you’re going to get short thrift.

“If you sit down across a table and this is about engagement, and say this is what I understand your policy direction is and this is what we think fits well with that and this is the benefit that will bring or this is the dreadful alternative we avoid, that’s where it becomes effective advocacy,” she said.

Miranda Ward





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