Hands up if you feel you know the prime minister and where she wants to lead the nation? When I recently put this question to a handful of friends, few could say they knew what Julia Gillard stood for, or why. None felt that they knew her as a person.
This struck me as odd given the regular media coverage of the PM’s activities, speeches and decisions. Surely, no other Australian public figure commands as many daily headlines and sound bites as the Prime Minister?
Since deposing Kevin Rudd and taking high office, Gillard’s popularity has plummeted in tandem with her government’s slide in the opinion polls. The answer could be right on the tip of her tongue.
In 1933, US President Franklin D Roosevelt began radio broadcasting the first of his 33 “fireside chats” to the American people during the midst of an economic depression that saw one in three people out of a job. Roosevelt continued to address the nation throughout his long presidency (1933-45), using the nascent power of radio to share his hopes and plans for the country, as Americans endured the unprecedented hardships of the depression and World War II.
Significantly, Roosevelt used these radio addresses to garner support and authority to execute his “new deal for the American people” — a massive spending and reform program covering social security, agriculture, banking, transportation and migration. Historians point to these radio broadcasts as being seminal to the affection and trust American’s placed in FDR — the only leader to be elected more than twice to the US presidency.
In 1982, another great communicator, President Ronald Reagan, reinstated the practice of delivering a weekly radio broadcast — a practice continued by all his successors, including Barack Obama, the first president to deliver his weekly address via the internet and YouTube.
Giving a weekly speech to the nation wouldn’t be a panacea for the malaise affecting Gillard’s popularity. In the end, it’s leaders’ achievements that count most.
But Gillard has a perception problem, and a weekly YouTube speech would be a unique way for her to speak simply and directly to us about her plans and hopes for Australia.
Critically, it would be an unprecedented way for the PM to manage our expectations of what can and cannot be achieved by her government, including many of the complex, long-running issues that are bedevilling the government, such as asylum seeker policy, the carbon tax on big polluters, and the budget deficit.
A weekly address to the nation has distinct advantages.
First, it circumvents the editorial framing that is part and parcel of the way news is created, packaged and delivered by the mass media. Journalists, editors and producers no longer simply report the news and allow us to make up our minds. Instead, we are now told what to think. Indeed, news media is now fractured and politicised to the extent that we can choose channels that deliver the news we want to hear — stories that confirm our political and social biases.
A second benefit of addressing the nation (a practice leaders seem to reserve only for elections or catastrophic events) is that it would let the PM to set her own agenda and build a cohesive story about her vision for the nation — and about what can be achieved, and how.
This is crucial. Gillard’s licence to lead her party and govern the nation is at risk because media commentators and the PM’s political opponents are framing our expectations of what should and can be achieved on key policy issues.
Like it or not, the expectations and perceptions of others govern one’s reputation. And while Gillard cannot silence her critics, she could protect and enhance her reputation by using her advocacy skills to explain and argue the government’s case, clearly and consistently via the new broadcasting power of the internet.
No leader is perfect. But a leader who can tell us a story about what they want for the nation, and why they’ll do all in their power to achieve it, invites understanding, trust and respect.
*Dan Gaffney is a former contributing journalist for News Limited and ABC Radio. He has worked in PR and media relations for two decades.