JULIA Gillard worked hard to strategically position herself and her government’s policies positively in the minds of Australian voters.
However, the media kept telling us her communication didn’t have traction with the electorate.
People talked about the messages not getting through but this wasn’t the root problem with Ms Gillard’s communication efforts, according to research conducted by PhD student Deborah Wise and myself over recent years. We’ve been looking at the concept of positioning in public relations.
Through some nifty positioning work of his own, Tony Abbott managed to construct an image of Ms Gillard in the heads of many voters as somehow being an illegitimate prime minister.
Back in 2011, he used the carbon tax debates to declare Ms Gillard a liar, positioning her as untrustworthy. The subsequent storylines, or key messages as those working in PR call them, centred on Ms Gillard going back on her pre-election promise that there would be no carbon tax.
Mr Abbott wove a tale of deceit and, linked with the threat of a big new tax on everything, seemingly hit the mark with Australian voters. On this foundation, Mr Abbott was seen to constantly question whether Ms Gillard could be trusted on anything she did.
Underpinning Mr Abbott’s positioning of Ms Gillard was his assertion that she had breached the trust of the Australian people. This, in the context of strategic PR positioning, undermined her right to position herself as the legitimate leader of the country.
In the minds of voters this translated as Ms Gillard having no moral right to be leader or to be trusted to set the course for the nation. Our research found something wrong with Ms Gillard’s overall communication strategy from a positioning perspective.
She failed to construct, in the minds of voters, the moral right to introduce a price on carbon.
It seems that in the minds of many, she never did so and this failure served to fuel Mr Abbott’s ongoing positioning of Ms Gillard as a “bad prime minister” and her government as “bad” – a bad government, a bad tax, a bad plan and so on.
This permeated much of Ms Gillard’s term and she never successfully countered with a campaign to reposition herself as having an indisputable right to lead the government.
In the recent shadow of her overthrow from prime ministerial office, it begs the question whether there was ever going to be time for her to undertake such a campaign no matter how long she had in office, what could she have done?
I think Ms Gillard should have acknowledged her mistake in not better explaining her motives to introduce the carbon price. People may have understood a position centred on making the judgment call that doing a deal with the Greens was better than inflicting Tony Abbott on the nation as prime minister.
This may have given her a platform to talk, and even be heard by the electorate, about why she thought Mr Abbott would be such a bad choice for the country.
It is doubtful whether we would have ever got the opportunity to see if such a mea culpa could have formed the basis of a turnaround in the electorate’s regard for Ms Gillard and her government.
The notion of positioning is still centred on marketing ideas of product differentiation and promotion. It seems considerations of local moral orders that determine rights and duties associated with positions taken or assigned are not on the to-do list.
Hopefully in the wash-up post-leadership spill, those combing the ashes of Ms Gillard’s defeat in the search of answers might move beyond simplistic notions of PR messaging and look more closely at what it takes to successfully position a prime minister.
Dr Melanie James is a senior lecturer in communication and public relations at the University of Newcastle.