What the passing of Malcolm Fraser really says about today’s politicians’ communications skills

Following the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and comments that he under achieved while in government Burson-Marsteller CEO Christine Jones offers some pointers on how politicians could communicate more effectively in an effort to be remembered in a more positive light once out of office.Christine Jones

Like many people, I was saddened to hear the news that Malcolm Fraser passed away overnight. Since the news was announced a few hours ago, tributes have flowed in from all corners of our country and around the world. It’s a fitting acknowledgement of his service to Australia and Australians over many decades.

I was also interested in the reaction to Ross Cameron’s comment that Fraser under achieved when in government. Some have jumped on the timing of his remarks. But to me, this strikes at the very heart of all that is wrong with our politicians and the confines our democratic Westminster system places on them. This system has led to our parliament being more like school debating where one team always has to refute and rebut to win the argument. The argument has become the end game and winning it, has seemingly become the goal.

This is why many under-performing former political leaders are better when out of the job. Take Kristina Keneally for example. She was hamstrung by her factional party and led NSW Labor to the most crashing of defeats in 2011 following just over two years in the job. Out of the job, she has a very successful media and corporate career. Same goes for Julia Gillard. And John Hewson.

So why are they better out of office than in? Quite simply because they can say what they really think and back it up with their actions. They can speak with the authority their former position gives them without any of the shackles they suffered while actually in the position.

So what does this mean for our current politicians? Is it possible for them to toe the party line, stay on message  and retain a sense of authenticity? Maybe. Here’s my fivecommunications tips on what they could start doing more of if they want to be remembered for being effective while in their position:

  1. Be consultative. This is an era of engagement. Bring friends and foes to the table. And often.
  2. Use real words that real people use in real conversations. Not soundbites. Not slogans.
  3. Don’t over-state the big picture. People can’t relate to the future Australia that is described in the Intergenerational Report. Focus on tangible short term changes and how these will help in the next year or two.
  4. Admit mistakes. Issues management 1-0-1. It builds trust. And importantly, act on what you have learned.
  5. Lastly, show me, don’t just tell me. Actions always speak louder than words.

Christine Jones is CEO of PR agency Burson-Marsteller. 


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