Memorial University professor Alex Marland has a new book on the market. Brand Command is about political communications. Marland interviewed a lot of people and did a lot of research for this very big book that lots of people should read.
One of the big ideas in the book is that politicians these days are very keen on something called message control. They have a fetish for consistency so that everyone is singing the same things from the same hymn book, as the metaphor goes. It’s an old idea and there are many reasons why politicians like to be consistent. For one thing, repetition across many means of communication increases the likelihood the message gets through.e gets through.
On another level, though, consistent messaging means ultimately that actions match words. In that sense, message consistency is about credibility and values and trust. Politicians like to tell people what they believe in and how they will make decisions. Voters don’t spend a lot of time thinking about government so they want someone they can trust to make decisions they agree with or can generally trust are the right ones. When political analysts talk about “connecting with voters” that’s what they are getting at.
Anything that attacks a politician’s credibility is bad and when – as in Ball’s case – the wounds are all self-inflicted, then you know there is a huge problem.
So why did Dwight Ball fire John Ottenheimer?
Say one thing. Do another.
When Paul Davis appointed active partisan John Ottenheimer to head the provincial government’s housing agency, Dwight Ball condemned the move as patronage. Ball promised to end patronage in government appointments. His new independent appointments commission would give qualified candidates for appointments.
Dwight Ball became Premier in December 2015. Ball never did anything about Ottenheimer, though, until he fired him – or more correctly had someone else fire Ottenheimer – about a month ago. In effect, he approved Ottenheimer’s appointment by default. Ottenheimer was also undeniably competent. No question about it. Indeed, in an open and fair competition including one that relied on an executive search consultant to actually find a potential candidate to run the housing agency, Ottenheimer’s name would likely come up.
Ball’s words and actions didn’t match on Ottenheimer. Then, this past Thursday, word leaked out of the Confederation of at least five senior appointments within the public service of former Liberal candidates or people with strong ties to the party. Saturday’s Telegram revealed the Liberals had hired another former candidate as a school board election co-ordinator.
Words and actions didn’t match up again. This time the credibility gap was even larger. When Davis had appointed a qualified person to a patronage job, Ball attacked. Now Ball was doing precisely the same thing and – as if to emphasise the hypocrisy Ball justified his actions the same way Davis had.
“This would not be seen primarily as political patronage and all, said Ball. “This is putting people in that have the experience and the knowledge to do what needs to be done.” Would be seen? By whom? Well, certainly not by folks who listened to Ball a year earlier and who trusted that Ball would take patronage out of appointments like this one.
That’s the key word.
They heard Ball’s commitment. They accepted it. Heard what he promised and trusted Ball to deliver.
You can understand the damage Ball has done to himself not only by going back on his word but by having no good reason for it. Forget that Ball handed the opposition an easy avenue of attack. What makes the patronage appointments so politically damaging is that Ball had no reason for going back on his word. Nor was Ball the least bit apologetic for what he’d done.
Not the first time
If this was one episode, the damage might not be so deep. Unfortunately for Ball, this is just the continuation of a pattern of behaviour.
Three weeks ago, reporters got a chance to talk to Ball after a cabinet “retreat.” Ball has been largely unavailable to media since the disastrous spring session of the legislature. Now Ball’s own people had set up a big media show with cabinet ministers arrayed behind him.
Reporters asked Ball about the cuts coming up in the fall budget. That’s a question anyone with half a clue expected them to ask. Ball’s reply: “This is not about cutting. This is about where we can create new sources of revenue for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”
That is a unmistakable shift in messaging away from the government’s announced agenda last spring. One budget in the spring. A little budget in the fall, complete with cuts that the treasury board was supposed to work on over the summer. Then another hard budget next spring.
But as much as Ball’s “not about cuts” line was out of step with the spring, it was absolutely in step with the the way Ball’s administration has been rolling back small but irritating cuts from the spring budget. One after the other, they had turned around on libraries and, even this week, relocation of a nurse in a remote community in Labrador.
Flip ahead three weeks from the big media briefing. Ball does a bunch of media appearances the day after his political appointments’ story broke. He told VOCM that – hold on – we can expect more cuts in the fall from the mini budget. “Expect service cuts” and “difficult choices” the VOCM headline warned.
Now, suddenly, there’s a return to the earlier plan.
Which is it?
When Dwight Ball says something, how do we know what commitments we can believe and what ones we should doubt?
How do we know when we can trust Dwight Ball do say what he will do and then deliver on it?
How are voters supposed to trust Dwight Ball’s word is his bond?
Dwight’s Chronic Problem
Dwight Ball isn’t the first politician to run into a credibility problem because he said one thing and did another. Lots have done it. And lots of times there are good reasons for changing direction.
Others have broken their word with political impunity. Danny Williams – for example – did precisely what Dwight Ball has done on patronage. Before the election, Williams promised to end patronage. After the election, Williams stuffed his cronies into every job he could manage. In fact, Williams was trying to salt away his future wife into a lovely patronage job right up to the moment he left office.
The political difference between Williams and Ball is that Williams wasn’t at 17% in the polls.
And Ball is at 17% in the polls not just because of a hard budget. Other politicians – Clyde Wells, for example, – have delivered far harsher budgets that raised taxes, cut spending and sacked thousands of public servants without suffering such a drastic drop in popular support.
Ball has such a poor relationship with voters in Newfoundland and Labrador – that’s what the polls mean – because he has a record of flip-flops, changes of direction, and of doing one thing and saying another. People already suspected Ball had lied to them during the election, had promised them anything to get elected, all the while knowing he would do something else in office.
And then, the episode with Ed Martin cemented in their mind that Dwight Ball had a trouble with the truth. Ball claimed he didn’t know anything about the exorbitant severance paid to Ed Martin even though Martin had quit his job. The evidence – as it mounted – showed that not only had Ball know and approved a severance payment for Martin, but he’d done nothing to stop it once Ball found out – on the day Martin left the job – the money had been approved.
This is not a communications problem.
It’s a political problem.
More specifically, it’s a political management problem. Communications is merely an indicator.
Dwight Ball got into his current political jam because what he did and said didn’t match up. A lot. Not just once or twice. But too often.
That’s political management. When Ball got into the Premier’s Office he had the chance to do precisely what he’d promised. If he needed to change that – for good reason, based on new information – then Ball not only had all the reason to change, Ball had the means to explain to folks why what he was now up to was at odds with his previous comments.
Thousands of politicians have done precisely that and done it successfully. People accept reasonable explanations. The budget is a good example. Ball didn’t even have to explain, for example, why he needed to change his promise on cutting the HST. People expected it. People actually wanted him to drop that commitment in the interests of coping with the financial problem Ball inherited from the Conservatives. That’s why it made no sense for Ball to stick with his HST promise only to have to reverse himself in the budget a few months later.
Getting good advice. Taking good advice.
What makes Dwight Ball’s message control problem over the past couple of weeks stand out is that he just finished changing his senior staff. His new communications director starts work today. Ball changed staff because of the chronic problems he’s faced since taking office. New advisors. And yet we have the same problem.
Dwight Ball may have been getting some bad advice before now. Okay. Presumably, Ball just fixed all that. His new chief of staff is an experienced and capable political operator who learned his craft working for Brian Tobin. Tobin is no political slouch. Neither is Greg Mercer. The fact that Dwight Ball continues to have political management problems suggests that the cause wasn’t in the staff. The root is deeper and Mercer and his new team have a job ahead of them to pull Dwight Ball up out of a very deep political hole.
Ball’s new staff face a tough task. It’s not impossible but they will need some time to sort out a problem that – quite frankly – has been dogging Dwight Ball for two years, at least. So let’s consider these first couple of gaffes as gimmes. As serious as they are, no one would sensibly expect the new staff to produce massive changes overnight, especially since the communications director is only just getting into the office. And to give credit, some things have improved on the media relations side of the shop already. That bodes well for the future.
Dwight Ball should be getting solid advice from here on.
Will he take it?
That’s the crucial question.
Only Dwight Ball can answer it.
Ball has the couple of months between now and the Liberal Party convention in early November to change the course of his political future.
. . . → Read More: The Sir Robert Bond Papers: Message Control #nlpoli