For the past five weeks, the nation’s newspapers have carried story after story of candidates caught out by the rules, or their own behaviour. Are Australia’s political journalists taking a decidedly investigative bent? Or are they being boosted by the research capabilities of the major parties — now focusing on tearing down their opponents through any means possible?
From the outside, it’s hard to know for sure where any single story originates. But all journalists and party insiders know opposition research routinely makes its way into the papers — and more often during election campaigns. It’s just one way the spinners of the two major parties shape and influence the campaign, each trying to secure their own side’s advantage.
Elections are wars of words. Minor parties and independent candidates usually deal with the media directly, but when it comes to the major parties, a layer of party operatives stand between most journalists and the information they need. This means the party spinners hold powerful positions, shaping the message.
The best campaign media directors, says veteran ALP campaigner Tony Mitchelmore, are highly organised, decisive and strong — able to keep senior politicians on message to best amplify the day’s focus. They preside over a burgeoning mass of information that changes and grows every day of the campaign, and while everything is planned out weeks in advance, the schedule is flexible enough to respond to polling, events and other factors. The messages change accordingly — and quickly. There’s no time for second-guessing.
Their work is “critical”, Mitchelmore says. “They don’t necessarily create or always decide on the messages, but they pump it out. Making it cut through is their responsibility. What they do is almost … well, the campaign.”
Starting at 3am, staffers sift through and analyse the papers to see what needs to be responded to, and what can be built on. This doesn’t stop during the day. Media rooms in campaign headquarters are filled with multiple massive screens, watched all the time to keep track of what the media is saying. At 6pm, the headquarters go silent, as everyone sits and digests in minute detail the way the day was spun on the TV news. But the days are less regimented than they used to be. The media doesn’t sleep much — and neither do the campaigns. Media queries are answered 16 hours a day.
There are two moulds for chief campaign spinners. They can be career staffers, with intimate knowledge of the personalities, policies and apparatus of their side, or they can be former journalists, with a savvy insight into the functioning of the media. This campaign, the top spinners for both sides are staffers.
There are two arms to the spin operations of modern political campaigns. On the road, for the TV cameras, are the politicians. And with them are their own personal spinners and minders, the most important of whom travel with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. At campaign headquarters is another set of operatives. Campaign HQ deals with and tries to influence the opinion makers and senior reporters, as well as forming the nexus of campaign planning for spinners, both on and off the road.
On the government side, the two most senior spinners are staffers from opposite sides of the Liberal tent. Often on the road with with Malcolm Turnbull and the travelling press pack is David Bold — a calm, career staffer and press secretary who has worked in Turnbull’s office since late 2013. In Campaign HQ (CHQ) in Canberra is Andrew Hirst, a well-regarded survivor of the Abbott office and key spinner in the 2013 campaign. Neither have ever been journalists — a fact some Liberal insiders note with apprehension. But one could point out they’re helped by several others doing comms for the Turnbull campaign who have been — John Garnaut was, until recently, with Fairfax, for example.
On the Labor side the two top spinners are two Ryans, which we hear has caused some measure of confusion. Career political staffer Ryan Hamilton, now campaign communications director, is in CHQ, which for Labor is in Melbourne. He’s normally a key staffer to opposition comms spokesman Jason Clare. And on the road with Shorten is his media director, Ryan Liddell, who’s been with Shorten since 2011 and has headed his media unit since the departure of Kimberley Gardiner earlier this year.
The media directors work closely with other campaign strategists in keeping the story where their own side benefits. Discussion of education will always play well for Labor, for example, while talking about the economy tends to benefit the Coalition. As former Labor press secretary Lachlan Harris told Crikey when discussing campaign comms in 2013:
“The job is to influence the questions, not define the answers. If the question of the day is Gonksi, it’s more likely to give the government [then Labor] a win. If the question is about people smuggling it doesn’t matter how good your answer is, it’s a win for the opposition [then the Coalition]. Even if you’re the best designer of an answer you’re still doing a bad job if you’re on the back foot.”
Announcements, attack ads, and exclusive drops to papers can all be designed to encourage questions on one subject and away from others.
But it’s not all about the handful in the inner circle. Both campaigns have been between one and two dozen dedicated media staffers at CHQ — a lot of media requests come in, so you need many hands to handle them.
This campaign has also brought the rise of dedicated digital media teams within both campaigns — they’re responsible for creating those memes you see on party Facebook pages. But they do more than that. On Instagram, photographers soften the leaders. Turnbull’s dedicated photographer, Sahlan Hayes, posts beautiful images of the campaign (some of which have made the newspapers).
Shorten’s no slouch on Instagram — his staff also manage an Instagram account for his pets. On YouTube, successful election ads made for the medium can reach thousands far more cheaply than an ad on a TV network (speaking of ads, the parties have taken to unveiling them at special press conferences — all the better for a free spot on the TV news). Email campaigns encourage the base to donate time or resources, or to get involved in other ways. Labor, of course, has the Labor Herald — another way to stay in touch with the base.
The focus on social is greater than ever — particularly for the Labor Party. Insiders within Labor CHQ say social media matters almost as much as the 6pm news bulletin to determine who won the day.
Labor has to be more disruptive, because the party is, in many ways, behind. “It seems like the Liberals are trying to not rock the boat — they’re keep it low temperature, low key,” Mitchelmore said. “They probably like that people have switched off. In these last few weeks, Labor has to do something … They have work out what big scene they’ll have. And that’ll factor into their comms.”
Spinning the campaign isn’t just about your own side — undermining the competition is just as important.
Tearing down the opposition is how marketing communications in politics differs from selling cornflakes, Mitchelmore says. “Instead of just saying, ‘our soup is fantastic’, you also say, ‘and theirs is poison’. And the other side is doing the same to you.”
Chinks in the armour are found and exploited. Both campaigns keep careful note of which reporters are travelling with the leaders, and CHQ sends daily flurries of text messages to journalists with suggested questions at press conferences.
Another key part of spinning a campaign is opposition research. Researchers carefully scrutinise key competitors to discover where the bodies are buried — dropping their finds to grateful media outlets hungry for an exclusive scoop. For readers, it’s often impossible to tell from what major scoops about candidates this election have come from journalists trawling public disclosures and which have been dropped to them by political parties (journalists do not disclose sources).
With 15 sleeps to go, we can expect the party spinners to throw every tactic they can think of at trying to move the coverage in favour of their side.