Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The perils of listening tours: always find a friendly face first

It’s easy enough for political tacticians to be clever sitting around in the office planning how to handle a public relations problem. You can always devise  solution. The hard part is to put it into practice.
Which is something that Victorian Premier John Brumby has discovered this week. There is the poor fellow with a State budget stretched almost to the limit and a Royal Commission lobs him a report with recommendations that would cost billions to implement.
Acquire the homes of people in the most extreme bush-fire prone areas and take the electricity wires off the poles and bury them underground? We’d either have to savagely increase taxes and charges or send the place nearly broke with borrowings. Neither of them is an option with an election looming early next year but we can’t afford to offend the bush fire victims either.
So brains trust, what’s a Premier to do? Well let’s start off by showing concern. Let’s get out on the road with a listening tour. Get the views of those most affected. Publicly wring our hands and pretend we are trying to do the right thing by everyone. Hope that with time those dreaded Royal Commission recommendations begin to fade from memories.
Off to bushfire ravaged towns in Gippsland the entourage of Premier and advisers goes with a pack of cameramen and journalists in two to record the penance being done. Where they meet Callignee resident Tony Mann, who lost his home in the fires. The report inthis morning’s  Age gives the flavour:
”You have more press people here than you have members of the community,” he told the Premier. ”If this is community consultation, where are we at?”
Last night, the chairwoman of the Traralgon South and District Community Recovery Committee, Ange Gordon, said she was ”very angry” the Premier had visited the area without telling the committee.
”The people out here are doing it tough, they’re living in sheds and vans, and it’s cold, and they’re sick - they don’t need someone to come and rub it in their face like that,” she said.
Ms Gordon said residents were keen to talk to the Premier, but did not know he was coming.
”You can’t just come into a fly-by-night tour and have all the media there and no locals — that’s not talking to the public and talking to the communities at grassroots level,” she said.
Funny that, but the reaction didn’t go like that when discussed back in the Premier’s office. And all because the most important part of the planning was missed. When politicians go visiting they should always be preceded by the advance person — the key staff member of any campaigning politician, the one who sniffs out days ahead the reaction to be expected on arrival and then arranges things so that the intended message can be got across.
While it might not be possible on an occasion like this to stop some anger coming through, a friendly face or two with a sympathetic viewpoint can always be found and should be. At the very least the advance person should manufacture some occasions where it at least looks like people are being given a chance to say their piece.
And if the hostility really is overwhelming then the advice should be given to the Premier to stay home and get his tacticians to think of something else.
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