Why politicians should curb announcements

Work for a politician? Do you tell them the truth? To their face? MORI’s latest analysis of the drivers of trust in government announcements - “Who do you believe” will be released in PR Week on 23 November. It suggests that those sitting close to politicians need to be braver.

One of Tony Blair's current problems, as he thrashes around, ever more frustrated as his political mortality becomes pressing, is that many of those who would answer back, or encourage him to reflect before the announcement of yet another initiative, have now gone since May 2005. 

Advisers want to please.  Number 10 – whichever party is in power – is rather like a medieval Court.  All the courtiers want to catch the king's eye with their interesting ideas and plans, competing with each other for his attention. 

But in both No 10, in Departments of State and in individual local authorities across Britain, it might often be better to say fewer things, less often.  Alistair Darling has made a huge success of this with transport – from being a top five issue that worried Britons when he took office to number 15 on their list of concerns now.

While survey trends going back decades suggest it is wrong to talk about a new crisis of trust in government, there have been significant and worrying declines in recent years. The proportion saying the government can be trusted to put the interests of the country before the interests of its party has halved since 1986. Six in ten do not feel that the government uses official figures honestly or that official figures are produced without political interference.  Some argue this is a sign of a more sophisticated, healthy scepticism of government motives.  There is some sign of that in our new research, but there is also a great deal of unthinking, dismissive suspicion.

There is undoubtedly much greater awareness among the general public of the packaging of politics – or more commonly spin – than there was even a decade ago. We have seen this throughout our research, and it is a result of the focus placed on spin by the media and opposition parties, as well as the celebrity status of key figures, particularly Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

This has come at a time of general misinformation overload, through the proliferation of media outlets, including the internet.  As many have argued, while new information sources should make us better equipped than ever to identify the truth, they actually make it harder to tell fact from fiction.

Given this context, politicians face a real challenge in both getting treated as credible, and their pronouncements as meaningful. 

Indeed, our latest analysis suggests that there may be fewer advantages from being a familiar face as a politicians than in other sectors.  There are clear signs that a change of faces can actually improve reactions to announcements where these are less associated with past failings.  David Cameron's great advantage is that – like Blair in the early 1990s – he is "fresh and new" for the public. For in the end, the public tires of all prominent politicians, once they have been in office long enough. 

Tony Blair once mused about getting rid of junior ministers as they were keen to be busy, active and visible – and distracted the government from the core things the Cabinet was trying to focus on. 
When it was pointed out that these were his loyal supporters, who might become serious trouble makers without cars and jobs, he quickly changed his mind.  But he had a point.  Fewer announcements by politicians of whatever sort, more consistency and simplicity, rather than eye catching new ideas every week, might just help – providing they are able to stick to a compelling narrative and build the type of reputation enjoyed by only a select few politicians; "I don't always agree with .....but you know what he stands for".  For the public to know what you stand for you need to say less sometimes, not more.

Ben Page is Chair of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute.  MORI's latest report, "Who do you believe?" will be released on 23 November.

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