No Minister

"Do you want fries with that?"

I watched Jacinda Ardern’s announcement of the move to level 2 tyesterday afternoon and shortly after saw on the TV news Boris Johnson trying to explain whatever the fuck his government is supposed to be doing, at which point I realised academics are going to have a research gold mine available to them in studying the quality and effectiveness of politicians’ messaging about this pandemic.

A lot of NZers, including fellow authors of this blog, have been scathing about the fact that Ardern has a degree in communication, rather than the law, finance or business degrees favoured by right-wing politicians.  All I can say is, you guys had better start taking comms graduates more seriously – compare her communication over the last eight weeks with Simon Bridges’ output and the massive change in party support levels is immediately explained.

The obvious rejoinder to that is that it’s substance, not messaging, that counts. And fair enough too, but even if we restrict ourselves to substance the picture doesn’t change much. It’s usually claimed that good governance requires leaders with experience in business, but that hasn’t proven to be true in this case. NZ’s leader is a comms grad with no business experience, whereas the USA and UK are led by people with a lot of experience in what right-wing simpletons like to describe as the “real world,” ie business.  Compare the relative performance of those countries so far during the pandemic with ours to see just how little business experience is actually worth when it comes to leadership.

NZ is re-opening its economy in the context of having achieved elimination of COVID-19, for the moment at least (and yes I am using epidemiologists’ definition of what elimination means in the context of an epidemic, not your colloquial one). The USA and UK are planning to re-open theirs in the context of not even having control of the infection rate, let alone eliminated it. That will quite literally cost lives.

NZ has some advantages, of course.  We’re an isolated country with a small population and no land borders with other countries. But we also have disadvantages – compared to the USA and UK we were woefully unprepared to deal with a pandemic. I think there’s a good case to be made that NZ’s simple, clear methods for dealing with the pandemic and the simple, clear messaging that went with it had a lot to do with our success, and for that we most likely have the fact that our PM is a comms grad to thank.

Duncan Grieve’s got a very good piece about it in The Spinoff today, in which the contribution of comms to our success is summed up as:

“…when this episode is finally over, when humanity returns to whatever passes for normal life on the other side of this, it will be manifestly obvious that the single most powerful contribution to the apparent success of our fight against Covid-19 was communication. What we have witnessed over the past two months has been a communications masterclass – a multifaceted, stunningly effective campaign which unified a nation into complying with unprecedented restrictions with near total obedience. 

It utilised a variety of techniques – as ancient as political speech, as modern as hyper-targeted social media advertising – to produce a level of uniform behaviour unimaginable in a western-style democracy.”  

He backs that up with a lengthy article, of course. I think he’s right – let nobody turn their nose up at comms degrees after this, you’ll just make yourself look stupid.

Written by Psycho Milt

May 11, 2020 at 6:53 pm

Posted in New Zealand

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