The evidence-based case for more PR in politics

A new book on facts, misinformation and communication could have the effect, intended or not, of rehabilitating public relations for the non-establishment left, writes journalist-turned-political-staffer-turned-PR-guy Ben Thomas.

An essential stop on the carefully orchestrated tourist trips to North Korea is the imposing Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It curates Kim Il-sung’s almost singlehanded defeat of the marauding United States which had disrupted peace on the Korean peninsula and forced the North to invade Seoul. Its massive promenade is carefully marked in numbered lines on asphalt. Too narrow for cars, and too numerous for the scarce vehicles on Pyongyang’s empty roads anyway, the lines instead indicate standing positions for soldiers in mass military parades of loyalty to the leader.

Overwhelmed by propaganda images, news clippings, tales of American treachery and Kim’s bravery and providence, a Texan in our party sighed, “I wish I had paid more attention in history class so I could tell which of that stuff was bullshit.”

With social media and fake news, it can now seem like we’re all trapped in our own permanent Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Enter social policy researcher and former Morgan Foundation scholar Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw and her book A Matter of Fact, the latest in the BWB Texts canon. It’s the result of Berentson-Shaw’s search for answers about how to communicate policy and science effectively, prompted in part by years of seeing health initiatives as obvious as vaccination fall on the deaf ears of anti-vaxxers. (It’s necessary to note that Berentson-Shaw was not linked with Foundation funder Gareth Morgan’s TOP party, which crashed and burned through communications failures too obvious and intractable to warrant any kind of investigation, scholarly or otherwise.)

The book is pitched at science communicators, but also the parts of the political left who champion the mantra of evidence based policy. It results from months of ploughing through research on psychology to distill how people absorb and assimilate knowledge. The bad news: there’s no bias towards truth. People seek information that confirms their worldview and reject facts that don’t. Our lizard brains judge credibility on attractiveness and likeability as much as expertise. Hearing something we know is false often enough fools our idiot minds into thinking it’s true.

As Frank Luntz, the wildly successful Republican party pollster, puts it “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”. And what people hear is more often than not fucked.

Having identified barriers to effectively communicating science and policies, Berentson-Shaw looks at evidence of what works. There are useful tips. For example, asking people to guess the level of consensus on vaccine safety makes them more likely to accept the actual figure once it’s given to them. Her key finding: communicators should better control their message by creating strong narratives that talk to audiences based on what they value.

In other words, after digging through the evidence, the journal articles and studies, Berentson-Shaw has discovered public relations.

If that sounds like a jibe, it’s only because public relations has had an ironic PR problem of its own, being looked down upon by serious scientists and policy makers and dismissed as “spin”. But it’s no exaggeration to say that even accounting for the high quality of the book’s content, Berentson-Shaw’s greatest achievement for the progressive movement could be rehabilitating PR for the non-establishment left.

There is nothing new under the sun

The issues in A Matter of Fact may not be new but couldn’t be more timely, drawing heavily on the work of George Lakoff who introduced the idea of “framing” messages, and the themes of Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which sexed up Lakoff by adding neuroscience.

The Political Brain publicised the startling discovery, cited by Berentson-Shaw, that presenting people with information contradicting their political beliefs excited the same parts of the brain as the “fight or flight” response to physical threats. Westen therefore recommended his fellow Democrats communicate “left-wing” policies such as gun control to right-wing voters in a way that aligned with their right-wing values, making them less likely to be heard as a threat. It’s hard to change people’s values, so you should appeal to voters in ways that reflect their worldviews.

A then little-known Labour PR person, Clare Curran, evangelised The Political Brain within the party, presenting a paper to a 2006 party conference titled “Language Matters: Setting Agendas – taking charge of the language”. Noting risks to the then-Labour government’s re-election, she argued, “A way to approach these risks is to reframe public discourse about the things that matter to New Zealanders and ensure that Labour is identified with their core values.”

Curran believed the right had bested the left at framing, setting the terms of debate about tax cuts, welfare dependency and political correctness – language that loaded the dice when the left tried to make the case for tax increases, more generous benefits and progressive social change. She recommended using market research (polls and focus groups) not to find out about issues of the day, but “to see what really motivates people, what they really think”, and use language drawn from that research to reach the public.

Curran’s paper was leaked and duly lampooned. But its failing was not its basic theme, or even its outsize ambition, suggesting Labour frame National as “enemies of the people”. The problem was Curran ignored her own advice, firing off proposed lines and slogans without doing the basic work of finding out what voters thought first.

As a comms guru, she made the same error she would later make as a politician, one that Berentson-Shaw warns against: Don’t mistake your own prioritised values and beliefs for those of your audience.

In November of the same year, framing made a splash again. Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men, an exposé of the 2005 National Party election campaign based on the stolen or leaked emails of former leader Don Brash, introduced most New Zealanders to Crosby-Textor, an Australian polling and political strategy firm, which assists centre-right parties across the English-speaking world.

Hager leads his reader breathlessly through a chapter titled “The Manipulators: leveraging doubt and fear”, just in case his alarmed prose left any doubt about how he perceives market research. His heavy-handed editorialising had the desired effect: Crosby Textor is now a focus for countless left-wing political conspiracy theories, credited with superhuman powers to subvert democracy, and invoked to explain any upsetting occurrence in the New Zealand polity.

Essentially, Crosby Textor held focus groups with undecided voters, asking them questions about the economy, the state of the nation, tax cuts and Helen Clark. Participants’ views were tested. They were asked why they felt certain ways, and if, for example, despite their belief Labour was doing a good job, they had any reservations. The firm suggested National incorporate the public’s opinions – both their superficial beliefs and deeper positions – into political messaging. Hager was aghast.

Revisiting The Hollow Men 12 years later, it’s striking how similar Crosby Textor’s practice is to the approach recommended by Berentson-Shaw.

Where Berentson-Shaw recommends communicators “choose a target group that is receptive to new information – those not fixed in their views, or with very extreme positions”, Hager condemned Crosby Textor for targeting its research at so-called soft voters: “They were not interested in talking to the majority of people who were pretty clear about which way they would vote.”

Berentson-Shaw describes the importance of talking to people in ways they will understand: “Research your audience before communicating – what are the values and beliefs they currently prioritise? What values and beliefs do they hold but not prioritise?” Once you know this you can ask, “What helpful pro-social values do your target group hold that you can toggle them towards to help them see the good evidence you have?”

This was what Crosby Textor did, with Hager reporting it “sets out to unearth ‘prompted perceptions’, ‘embryonic perceptions’ and even just ‘hesitations’ that can be turned into ways to influence them … it is purely and openly about manipulation.” (Another way of saying embryonic perceptions are beliefs that people hold but do not prioritise; they “toggle” between them.)

For Hager, Crosby-Textor’s worst sin was “manufacturing” sentiment, as if its market researchers conjured up ill-will towards Helen Clark, like voodoo practitioners summoning demons.

The point Hager misunderstands, but Berentson-Shaw gets, is that you can’t fool people into taking positions they don’t believe, at least on some level. Crosby-Textor didn’t invent voters’ antipathies towards Clark, it discovered them. The most important part of communicating is knowing what people care about. As the tagline of A Matter of Fact states, “the irony is that talking truth actually involves not talking at all, it is about listening.”

People and politics are complex. Rarely does anyone have only a single thought about anything. Effective political communications doesn’t see voters as blank slates waiting to be inscribed with catchy slogans. It recognises voters are individuals who value many different things, and works by explaining why certain things connect with those values more than others.

Frank Luntz is one of the few more successful message-crafters than Crosby Textor. The American pollster was responsible for getting Republicans to replace “oil drilling” with “energy exploration”. Luntz boasts in his Words That Work that the latter polled 10% higher than the former.

This sounds shady, like the voodoo Hager believes in. Or it may be written off as mere euphemism, disguising the gross nature of the reality of prospecting, like calling a toilet a bathroom. But it’s really a recognition that oil drilling – the practice, not the phrase – is more complicated than just being “bad”. Oil wells can cause environmental devastation, but people also like running their cars.

Words are just metaphors, so all political language will have some connotations. Luntz also coined “death tax” to focus opposition to estate (or inheritance) duties.

If Luntz’s phrase-making seems obvious, that’s only in hindsight and only because it has been so successful. As an example of framing done wrong, look no further than Berentson-Shaw’s trustees at her newly launched “think-and-do tank”, the Workshop, PhD student Max Harris and economist Shamubeel Eaqub. Both seek to recast the way tax is thought about in public debate with the slogan “tax is love”.

For this to work, people on some level need already to associate paying tax with the feelings of love they have for family, partners, friends. Communications must be evidence based as well as policy. It’s a safe bet that no amount of focus grouping could uncover an association between these two ideas – even, if they’re honest, for Harris and Eaqub themselves. It’s a lazy caricature of good communications, and one that genuinely takes the public for fools. Find a positive value (everyone likes love!) and then bolt it on to a policy you like (“tax is love!”). It’s as clever – and as effective – as saying “Tax is Krispy Kreme donuts”.

Ironies

An author writing about the limits of rationality and the threat of unconscious bias must accept with good cheer the inevitable ironies that will crop up in their text.

In A Matter of Fact, these surface as a blurred line between science and progressive policy positions. The two are often treated interchangeably, when they are very different in reality.

Concluding her book, Berentson-Shaw uses a final real-world example of evidence-based policy and communications apparently appealing to the better angels of our nature: an Irish law requiring that country’s sovereign fund to divest its €300 million fossil fuel holdings within five years. Berentson-Shaw signs off by saying, “It makes me feel very hopeful that when the right conditions are created for people to respond to good evidence we come together and act.”

The irony here is that there seems to be no evidence that governments and pension funds selling off oil stocks and coal bonds has any effect on climate change at all. It’s a strange case study for harnessing the power of “truth” to make positive change.

By its nature, divestment is activity on the secondary market, and has no effect on the cash reserves or capital of the fossil fuel industry (just as selling your car on Trademe doesn’t make Nissan poorer). It doesn’t drive down share prices, and if it did that would just increase returns for “unethical” investors. Even divestment’s most ardent advocates argue it at best “stigmatises” the oil industry. The real-world consequences for global warming are essentially nil.

Advocates can argue that those symbolic consequences are important. But they remain arguments; a hundred miles away from being evidence and a thousand years away from being facts. The science of climate change is indisputable, but the politics of climate change remain a difficult balancing of different interests, timings and costs.

“Evidence based policy” is in vogue in progressive political circles, and it’s clear we should always try to be certain that the policies we adopt have a connection with what we are trying to achieve. But what we are trying to achieve will almost always be too complex for a single “truth” to emerge. The “right” rate for corporate tax is not inscribed in our DNA waiting to be discerned by a microscope, or discoverable by sending radio waves into space. Politics is not an equation that is there to be solved.

Acknowledging this makes Berentson-Shaw’s book more valuable, not less. Truth in politics has been and will always be contested. Politicians have always had to argue their case. A Matter of Fact is a strong local contribution to provide solid PR advice to scientists and policy-makers who need it more than ever in the social-media era.

Disclaimer: Ben Thomas is public relations consultant with Exceltium and a former National government press secretary. He has no relationship with Crosby-Textor, although Lynton Crosby once threatened to sue him for defamation


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