Two years ago at an inner-Melbourne bar not far from Spring Street, Crikey was told an interesting story about John Howard’s eyebrows. The storyteller was in the know, the story took place midway through the former prime minister’s first term, and his characteristic bushy brows were, well, bushy. In comes his long-term barber to trim his hair at the Lodge and, with Howard in the chair, snip go the brows to a more publicly acceptable length. Our storyteller is obviously hiding the presence of a third hand in this plan.

The darkest of the dark arts of public relations is the stylist, who speaks in cloth and movement, and most times you won’t really know the stylist’s message at all. To understand their gift of the garb, we consulted stylists to critique our leaders and tell us why Victorians feel Premier Denis Napthine is consistently more preferable as premier than Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews according to polls, despite their parties being in opposite positions on the same polls.

Napthine underwent an image “reinvention” in 2013 when he took the role of Premier after Ted Baillieu resigned. “Whatever way he tries to package it, he’s definitely a clubby type of guy … more establishment,” said Toorak-based Image Group International chief executive Jon Michail, who watched Napthine present his policies at the Melbourne Press Club this week.

“He’s very deliberate in coming across tougher,” said Michail of the Premier’s press club performance. “He was asked by one journalist something that put him in a bit of a spin. When he communicated back he was certainly a little more forceful than normal.”

“Those gestures would come from the arm movements, and from a body language point-of-view being a lot more forward.”

“His delivery is fairly good because he’s had some experience since he’s been in power — he used to be clumsy.”

Michail says Andrews has had a harder time with image. Despite serving as gaming and then health minister in the Brumby government, Andrews has had an identity crisis in his four years as Opposition Leader. The suburban press asked “Who’s that Dan?”, and journalism students have straw-polled Melburnians on the street asking them to tell Andrews apart from his deputy or the Premier to underwhelming success. His miniature profile has been a source of curiosity.

Now Andrews has been rebadged and relaunched, revealed as a Wangaratta-born family man. We know how he met his wife, we saw him at his father’s bedside in hospital, and we know that he’s a keen golfer. Michail says in politics Andrews has appeared optimistic. He likens Andrews’ big reveal to US President Barack Obama’s relatively unknown position as a senator before entering the national stage.

In that time Andrews has tried to claim the quality of assertiveness, and Michail says he looks “down-to-earth, casual and family oriented”.

“He doesn’t come across, intentionally, as tough as the Premier,” he said.

Michail says Andrews shows a little sexiness with his under-and-over knot with dimples; “ladies like them”. “He passes the test for average Joe Blow, but he’s not statesman material compared to a Paul Keating, as an example,” he said.

The Premier, by contrast, is broadcasting a message of style, says Michail. Quality suits, french cuffs, “first-class” glasses and more conservative half-windsor tie knots send a message to the big end of town that “he’s got a non-fussed, professional look, totally non-threatening”.

Overall Michail gave Napthine an eight to nine out of 10 for image, and Andrews a six to seven out of 10. But, he laments, “where has all the charisma gone? Because both the guys lack it,” while continuing that it can be learned and developed “along the way.”

“Both products right now are a bit dry,” he said.

Napthine scored highly on message delivery with Cam Barber, a specialist in coaching public figures in government departments, companies and football teams how to speak to the media. He says when body language and clothes aren’t considered, Napthine has delivered his messages with more clarity.

“The best achievement was really Napthine’s when he said it’s ‘about trust’,” he said, because “trust is a perception”. Napthine is telling voters they can’t trust Andrews, whose characterisation as the mystery man of Victorian politics hurts his perceived trustworthiness.

“If he seems like a good bloke, that goes a long way in politics, and [Andrews] was trying to do that by bringing in his family and doing interviews in the country. I think he did a pretty good job of that,” Barber said.

On Napthine, “he’s just trying to look reasonably confident. His view on messaging was probably ‘don’t stuff it up’,” Barber said. “By coming forward and saying trust is an issue, he was showing great confidence that the unknown aspect of Andrews was playing a big part.”

But Napthine is carrying more baggage into the election. “The greatest challenge was the Abbott factor. I mean we had John Howard coming down and campaigning for Napthine,” he said, speaking of how unwelcome the Prime Minister was in the election.

“We’ve got this national trust issue he’s trying to separate himself from, but still felt confident enough to lead on trust, mainly because of the unknown factor of Andrews.”

Speaking of the old bushy-browed devil, Howard was campaigning in the safe, Liberal-held seat of Ringwood with Napthine yesterday, and amid the throng at Eastland shopping centre something really stood out. It was an electric blue tie with paisley prints, and it appears on so many of Napthine’s campaign pictures that is must be among his favourites.

It’s objectively horrible, and only goes to prove that personal taste sometimes needs a gentle shove in the right direction.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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