Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

How to run a successful Public Affairs Campaign

In our youth most of us want to believe we will change the world. As we get older some say we are less ambitious. Others argue it is just that we grasp a reality that the world is changed little by little rather than in one fell swoop. Whatever your view it is unlikely either way that you dreamed of doing that by being a lobbyist or working in public affairs.  Despite the lack of glamour public affairs still plays an important role in our society and our system. Whether it is charities, environmental groups, NGOs, corporations or community groups the ability to influence and help shape public policy is an important tool.

So if you want to change something how do you go about it? There is often a view that it is all about secret meetings, loud media, posters and fancy footwork but the reality is very different. I have been involved in professional public affairs campaigns for 17 years now and you have no idea how old that makes me feel. Over that time the styles have often changed but the basic approach remains the same. So here are the steps I have learned that give you the basic structure and stages for a policy campaign.

  1. Research

Everything starts with research. Good research is the bedrock of a good campaign. We all set out with opinions and ideas but our own personal biases must be challenged. You need to know the history of current policy. You need to approach this with an objective mind. Then you need to examine other similar examples. This may be taking a look at other industries or sectors or it may be analysing the experience of other comparable countries. You need to have some baseline evidence to show that what you want can actually work.  Once you have drawn all this together you have to validate it. At Carr Communications we use a tried and tested ‘Devil’s Advocate’ system for this. In short you (or someone on your team) has to argue against your own research. Pick holes in it. Understand the opposing arguments thoroughly and have the ability to empathise with them. This is vital to identifying gaps. Without it you will end up with a piece of research that is flawed by groupthink and others will target the gaps later.

  1. Consult and recruit

Once you have your own research complete it is time to seek out others for their input.  At this stage you know you have a well thought out idea. You are seeking input from other related sectors or other players in the market. It may also be from communities or grass roots organisations. They will bring new angles that might not have been brought up in your initial research, they may also have additional ideas that can help or boost your plan. However, you are also seeking to recruit them. By getting their input you are also hoping to gain their support. At the end of the day it is simple maths. If you can demonstrate 20 organisations or a large number of people back your idea then it is much stronger than if you are walking in to argue your case alone.

  1. Engage with decision makers

With support now on board and a strong proposal under your arm, now is the time to meet decision makers. Many people make the error of engaging too early. If you do this then you risk the idea falling flat because of a perceived flaw or lack of appreciation of its impact. At this stage it is important that you know and can identify the actual decision makers. Too much time can be wasted talking to people who merely send your idea up the line. You need to get in front of people that can actually make things happen.  The skill at this stage is in understanding the decision maker and anticipating their questions. Answering their problems for them is critical to success.

  1. Wider engagement

This stage depends very much on the idea or proposal. For the majority it is often not needed. For larger plans however you may need to face a debate, criticism or require public support. In this case you must have much wider engagement. This means you must talk to the media and be able to clearly and concisely lay out the benefits of what your propose.  It is likely that this stage then runs concurrently with the other stages mentioned here. Personally, I insist that anybody that has to do this takes time for media training. Being right or honest isn’t the only requirement. Being understood is the real key.  Sometimes the best of ideas are lost, not because they were bad, but because the person behind them couldn’t communicate them. In the modern age your campaign may also need to engage social media and gather support on Twitter, Facebook , Snapchat and other platforms can be vital.  Once again the central ingredient is to be simple and engaging. This can take a lot of time but It can also be worthwhile if you need that broad pressure.

So there you have it. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Of course there are complexities and problems along the way and that is why so many people turn to a professional to help. However, understanding the importance of each of these broad stages is essential to building a good campaign. There is one other thing I recommend. Patience. All things come to he (or she) who waits. You will have set backs, meet barriers and encounter delays. All of this is to be expected. Working through it and navigating a way around it is where the real talent lies.


Governments, debates and the battle for public opinion

Whether it is a government in crisis or an industrial dispute we are used to hearing the refrain ‘We will not negotiate over the airwaves’. Yet we know that, in reality, that is exactly where at least some of the negotiation will be done. This week sees two very different problems facing the government but the communication around both will be sucked into the same cycle.

There is no doubt that really important breakthroughs tend to happen behind the scenes. Arguing or debating in the national media has rarely led to a resolution of anything. So why does it still happen? Because it plays a vital supporting role.

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin knows that he could sent a message to or meet the Garda Commissioner anytime he wants to clarify an issue. However, he has found it necessary to put some distance between himself and the commissioner while delivering an ultimatum of sorts. Politicians use the media for this purpose. It lays out their stall publicly and ups the ante once it has been pushed out across the airwaves. It ramps up the public pressure for a particular outcome.

We have all heard of the ‘court of public opinion’ and this is where the big battles are waged everyday.  The government will find itself on the back-foot this week as they are now forced to deal with a potential flood of opinion that is forcing them to act.  Politicians react to public opinion more than any other influence. It terrifies them and excites them in equal measure.

The dispute at Bus Eireann will see the same dynamic at play. Unions demanding government action, management demanding union action and government demanding a halt to strike action. There is no doubt but that unions and management will eventually have to get back around the table. Minister Shane Ross has set his face against intervening but if it becomes possible to solve the crisis by doing so you can be sure he will do it.

The problem is that everyone has to get their house in order first. Each side wants to have their stall set out and to be able to claim support of the public. So before they get around the table they must flex their muscles publicly to try and win our hearts and minds. If the public clearly support any one side then their hand is greatly strengthened when they sit around that table. We are seeing a raft of complex messages being thrown out: Unions want licensing of private operators discussed; the minister wants to be sure no more money will be demanded; Management want to be able to compete with their rivals. The solution will also be complex.

In any public crisis or debate it is only when all sides feel that the communications war can get them no further in the court of public opinion that they will return to a table, start to talk behind the scenes and make some decisions.

Brexit: a sign in the Eurovision tea leaves? maybe.

On November 17th I will take part in a Brexit Debate in the Irish Stock Exchange, Dublin as part of the View Temple Bar arts and politics festival. Ahead of this and just for a bit of fun I decided to see if I could find any link between Eurovision and Brexit.

The UK has always had a strange relationship with Europe. Never quite sure if they really wanted to be part of it or as far from it as possible. The Brexit vote was a shock but at the same time not totally unexpected. Euroscepticism has always been strong there but there were other signs too. Could it be that the Eurovision Song Contest was a harbinger of political doom all along? Behind all the glitter, shiny pants, short skirts and gimmicks there was a more serious trend?.  Just like the height of Ireland’s Euroscepticism coincided with the entry of Dustin the Turkey slagging off all of Europe to their face, there are patterns that heralded Brexit in recent times.

All Countries in the Eurovision are part of voting blocs. The UK is no different. Traditionally, once the song of a country in the bloc is half decent it can rely on the votes of its neighbours. The UK traditionally gives its votes to countries like Ireland, Sweden, Germany and Denmark. Interestingly the relationship with Sweden, Denmark and Ireland held up quite well with each  still picking up good votes from the UK when they had a decent entry. Even sometimes when they didn’t. In 2009 the UK and Germany gave each other scores of 7 and 8 respectively. All quite normal. Germany didn’t do all that well that year but Jade Ewen brought the UK in 5th.

However, something happened in 2010. Now many of you may remember that was Bailout year, height of the Crisis and talk of European meltdown. The Germans were playing the bad guy but it didn’t seem to hurt them at Eurovision. That year Germany, and the lovely Lena, won the competition. Now, traditionally Germany should have expected a decent vote from the UK. They got only four points. A bit of a shock when you have a popular song. To make matters worse who did the UK give 12 to? Greece.  Germany was now smarting and they gave nul points to a respectable British entry from the band ‘Blue’ the following year. In 2012 the Brits relented and gave Germany 6 points but there was no reciprocation and indeed neither country has voted for the other since. Something happened in 2010 that broke a long standing mutual appreciation.

The UK has looked out of step with Europe for some time. Only one top 10 finish in 14 years tells its own story. 8 times in the bottom four and three of those at rock bottom. However while the UK might have fallen out with Germany it did hold fast to its other friends. This includes Ireland.  Sweden won in 2012 and got douze points from the UK, second and third place countries Serbia and Lithuania got 7 and 8 respectively. So the UK seemed in line with European tastes. In 2013 another bloc country Denmark won and picked up 12 points from the UK, though second place Azerbaijan was not popular with the Brits.

2014 was Austria’s year, they got 12 points from the UK, while the Netherlands and Sweden in second and third got 7 and 8 points. All was well with the UK voting mood apart from the Germany spat. 2015  Sweden win and guess who they got 12 points from? The UK. That made the 2010 Germany result stand out even more but interestingly Russia and Italy came second and third and Russia got 6 points while Italy got 8. The UK seemed to agree broadly with the choices other Europeans were making. However 2016 was different. Ukraine won the contest with Australia and Russia coming second and third. We can split the jury vote and the public vote in this contest and see that while the jury did vote for Ukraine and Russia in second and third spot they give their top marks to Georgia who finished well back in 20th. Interestingly the public vote was even more out of kilter with Russia, Australia and Ukraine only coming 4th, 5th and 6th while the top three places went to Lithuania, Poland and Bulgaria. All of a sudden the UK seemed to be on a different wavelength. Not hugely, but enough to suggest that right then they were not thinking on the same lines as many other Europeans.

So small things make a world of difference and timing is everything in politics. A Brexit referendum may just have come at a time when a nation that is normally divided, but just about finds enough in Europe to agree on, felt a tad sour. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 Germany and France continued to languish at the bottom of the UK points awards. So perhaps we should have really seen this coming.

So what now? Scotland has already pushed for its own Eurovision entry and so has Northern Ireland. They may yet assert their independence by pushing this further. However the BBC holds the rights and there is not much can be done. But there in microcosm is the battle the UK is now fighting to hold itself together. Still perhaps the UK will happily try to keep its block and maintain friendly relationships with Sweden, Ireland, Holland and Denmark. Perhaps open borders are ok with these countries.  Brexit happened because what the UK really wants is a smaller Union. One where it holds more influence. One where its voting pacts are ok but others don’t do the same. A European Union where it can call the shots. While the UK is able to spot and back a winning policy it doesn’t like the fact that it hasn’t led the way for quite a while. Or maybe that’s the Eurovision I’m talking about?

The comments to help you survive that US election party

I am a product of Irish politics. That is what I do and know. In this global society people often assume we are all into ‘cool’ stuff like elections in the US. So if, like me, people often invite you to parties where you are expected to know your stuff but actually find it all a bit ‘meh’ here are some secrets for navigating the party without looking like a fool.

Start of the night lead off with turnout. ‘Watch for the inner city and minority turnouts’ wherever you are from you can’t help but have noticed that Trump has offended as many minority groups as he can. So saying this lets you sound like you have a point to make. You will stimulate debate now between your friends and can quietly sneak off and grab another beer.

So you have now made a good start. You head for the popcorn bowl and then another nerd asks you for your thoughts. This is the chance to wheel out a reliable old nugget. ‘It’s hard to say. There is a big urban/rural divide.’ Of course there is a divide. There is always a divide. People will nod and say ‘That’s an interesting point actually…’ while listing off their favourite fact about a previous election. Eat your pop corn, nod sagely and shuffle on about the room.

At some point you will meet someone pretty of the opposite sex. Now you want to appear knowledgeable but you want to give them the chance to talk to you. The safest bet here is to ask a question ‘How does this play out in the electoral colleges now?’ You have now demonstrated that you know something but have deftly hidden just how little. It’s ok, most other people don’t have a clue how this crazy system works either so they may bluff too. However, you may have found a genuine nerd who will be only too happy to bore you with all the details. This is fine if they are good looking so use this wisely.

As conversation goes on the result will be debated and you have a few hours of indicators to endure. Here is where you talk about the ‘Brexit effect’. You can say how results surprise people and then move on to discuss ’political disillusionment with the establishment’. Don’t worry you don’t have to actually say much. Just say those words and watch the conversation take flight. Now sit back and nod eagerly at certain points and gently point your beer bottle at people as you nod. Calm and in listening mode you will be well impressive.

As you mill into the chicken nuggets people will be starting to pour over the early results. Get your spake in early by asking ‘Are any of the swing states in?’ Someone will be only too helpful and fill you in on what is in and what is yet to come in. Now you know. Remember the names of some of the ones yet to come and hover around other groups telling people ‘Watch for Florida and Iowa’ or something like that.

As the results come in talk about the losers ‘lack of empathy’. Trust me it works for any side. People will agree with you. Equally you can say there was some ‘confused messaging’. Everyone will point out the examples for you. As for the winner you nod and say ‘I don’t envy the task of delivering now’.

The party will be grand. The beers and popcorn will be consumed and you can start having fun. Best of all everybody will think you are quite the nerd yourself. You might even be invited back next time. (But ssshhhh if you see me, this is our secret right?)

The flat-pack political campaign

No matter where they take place or who is running, political campaigns seem to follow the same basic patterns the world over.

  1. You are a living saint

Ok, well we know opponents make you out to be the devil so perhaps it’s natural that your own campaign makes you out to be so amazing. But a bit of humanity would not go amiss from time to time. Listening to the endorsements and speeches about what an amazing honourable wonderful person you are really just reminds us all that if it were entirely true you wouldn’t be in politics.

  1. Social media divides obsessively until it is an echo chamber

It is kind of funny to watch a campaign on social media. The supporters of a person or an opinion waste hours of their lives valiantly arguing why the person on their side is amazing. The only people that pay them any heed are their direct opponents. They eventually spend more hours arguing and insulting each other. Then they block each other until there are only people of the same view in their timeline. After that they tell you everyone agrees with them and they haven’t heard anyone who will vote the other way. The rest of us just ignore them all and sigh as they get on their hobby horse and bang out yet another tweet about how their candidate was so amazing tonight.

  1. People with serious questions

Various debates will show people asking questions. Sometimes people will ask a question in the street. More questions will come from a focus group. There is not much value in any of them. People usually ask the best questions, and give the most telling insights, when they are alone with you. In larger media led campaigns this means it can be very difficult to ever get to the truth. Put a few people in a room and all you are going to get is a lot of chin stroking and people asking and saying what they think will sound intelligent to everyone else. Or get them a clap. One or the other. People love clapping. Don’t ask me why. The only genuine views will come from people who have a long ago made up their mind before they ever asked the question in the first place.

  1. There will be abuse

Sorry folks this one just goes with the territory. There will be abuse and lots of it. Just remember nobody has the high moral ground on this one. Nobody thinks that what they say is abusive and everyone thinks the other side are worse at it. The problem is once you start to slag off your opponent personally, you can be sure your supporters are going one step further. Of course the other side will always engage in lots of whataboutery and hurl abuse at you suggesting it’s ok because someone once said something to them.

  1. There will be a media conspiracy

Ah bless. The old media chestnut. There is not a party, campaign or grouping that doesn’t think there is a media bias against them. The questions asked of their leaders are always tougher than the questions asked of other leaders. The media is always populated by your opponents or their family and they are trying to scupper you. It truly is amazing to watch every political grouping have the exact same gripe at the exact same time but with totally opposing points of view. Of course this ‘conspiracy’ is necessary. It’s how you dismiss bad PR and errors. It is how you keep your flock together by telling them everyone else is against us. All questions dismissed, if a doubt should creep in tell everyone that is ‘what the media want you to think’ and they will dismiss the doubt soon enough. The media meanwhile are off having a few drinks and couldn’t care less what any of them think.

  1. Options are in fact limited

Despite all the talk of ideology and focus on policies the voter’s options are quite limited. The candidate is either:

a) Somebody allied to a view you could never agree with

b) Someone willing to agree with any view anyone wants them to

c) Someone you voted for before and got burned

d)Somebody who just might be crazy

7. Politics is an open relationship

When you start out you gather lots of like minded people around you. You serve these people. They work hard for you and they believe in you. Great. The problem is that this becomes a committed relationship. They expect you to always be there for them and do what they want. Unfortunately to be really successful in politics you need to woo other voters. Politics requires your supporters to accept an open relationship. You cannot always do as they want you must appeal to others. You spend your time winking and smiling at others while your arm is around your own voters. In time you must convince them that an open relationship is good for all or you hit a ceiling that you cannot grow beyond.

  1. Tell them what they want to hear

In fairness it might not be pretty but if you want to win a campaign it is a good way to go. A comforting lie is more appealing than an inconvenient truth. People have things they want to believe and will find any reason to believe them. Everyone wants it to be simple. So why do politicians have focus groups and opinion polls and research? Well to find out exactly what the public want so they can pretend to be that. Like the Taxi driver who always has the answer to everything, the politician always knows what to do until they are in government. Tell people what they want to hear and they will love you, but be prepared that if you end up in power you will then break loads of promises. But then that’s the problem with comforting people: it’s all fine until reality kicks in.

  1. Believing the hype

With all the razzmatazz of a campaign it is easy to get swept along. There are a few steady heads who know that it is all show for the most part. They don’t believe it all and keep themselves grounded. They are rare though. It is far more common to either have a candidate who thinks they are amazing, with an ego the size of an alternate universe or they get utterly crushed by it all and sound beaten before they start. If a candidate believes they are as good as the hype says then a disaster will not be far away. As an advisor if you pause for a moment and feel you have to ease the blow of telling them an interview was bad, then you have a crushed egg right there, start sending out your CV.

  1. I’m just like you

It is a fairly simple rule but when all is boiled down that is the essence of any campaign. The trick is simply to convince voters ‘I’m just like you’. In reality I’m nothing like you but that’s not the point. Once a candidate can show they identify with you, understand you; think like you, feel like you, then it’s like voting for yourself. Why wouldn’t you trust them? The candidate who wins is always the candidate who convinces the most people of this. It is all one massive piece of theatre designed to prove just how much like a normal person I am. But of course I’m not. You will be disappointed in time.

  1. Denial

It doesn’t take long for whoever wins an election to become unpopular. This is usually because they have said what people want to hear and tried to prove they are normal. Suddenly you can’t find anyone that admits to voting for whoever it was that won. ‘Who voted for this? Not me!’

  1. The circle of life

In the end every dog will have its day. Ups and downs may come but if you hang around long enough eventually the wheel of fortune stops on you. Politicians grip this moment and squeeze it for all it is worth. It will eventually be taken from them and all end in disaster and abuse. Not long after it is over they will wonder why they did it and why they clung on for so long. It is at this moment they actually do become a normal person, look back and think ‘What the hell did I do…’

Jo Cox and hatred in politics

Certain events always stand out in people’s minds.  The murder of Jo Cox MP is going to be one of those for me.  I never met her nor was I overly familiar with her work before yesterday.  However, any human being would find such an event shocking.  If you have ever been involved in politics you will feel it even more.

Politicians often have to dismiss their fears to appear in control.  Nobody wants to hear a politician saying they were afraid or scared.  There is little sympathy for them.  When bad things happen to a politician there is a defence of ‘Oh they deserved it’…’they will get over it’ or the ever popular ‘it’s no worse than their policies.’

All of this stems from an extreme feeling of self righteousness.  That we are the only ones who can be right and if someone disagrees with us it cannot be just a different way of doing things it has to be because they are stupid, they are corrupt, they are ignorant, they are personally liable and they are less human.

Politics is about debate.  Robust and tough debate.  It must always be rooted in policy.  The slide into personal attacks is a slippery slope.  No party is free from it.  All public representatives get abuse.  Some like to blame some parties over another but the truth is different representatives get it from different sectors.  The problem is when people who should know better fail to see the start of the slide.  Once you move away from debating a policy to attacking the person you have begun that slide.  Once you stop accepting that a person’s disagreement with you does not make them any less smart or honourable than you, you are in trouble.

We go from personal abuse to jostling.  Jostling to something being thrown.  Something being thrown to a punch.  From there where does it go?  Where is the line?  I’ve known many politicians down the years from various backgrounds and parties who, while they never would admit it publicly, had times when they felt very worried for themselves or their families.

Hate is indeed at the root of this as Jo Cox’s husband said.  If you want to win a debate you can stick to facts but that will require a lot of talent, strategy and ability.  There is an easier lazier way.   Forget the actual argument.  De-humanise the opponent.  They can be political opponents, other nationalities, ethnic groups, other social classes.  Make them out to be genetically different.  Not like us.  Make out that they have cultural differences that are somehow more than just human creations.  The same rules don’t apply to them as everyone else.  They are stupid, incompetent, foolish, corrupt, vile, and odious.  Once you establish that you can start to say and do what you like.  That’s how hatred works.  It’s not a way of dealing with problems it’s a way of getting a pass to get around your conscience.

The shooting in Orlando, the shooting of Jo Cox and modern terrorism all fed off this hate.  A view that somehow it’s alright.  Jo Cox was elected.  If anyone disagreed with her there was a ballot box to change things.  If you disagree with any community or view then the ballot box is there to deal with all of these things.  To put anything ahead of that ballot box is to say that just because your view is not shared widely enough you have a right to circumvent it.  This can never be allowed to happen.

Nothing can change the fact that two little children will have to grow up without the mother who loved them. Absolutely nothing can ever make up for that.  No retribution, no change, no nice words can ever make it better.  It is final and permanent.  That’s what hate does.  The only thing each of us can do is to try being better people.  Stop looking around and blaming.  Stop looking for others to make the change.  You and I, we would never do anything like shoot someone.  We would never hurl vile abuse at someone in the street.  But where exactly do we draw a line, how much are we ok with?  Do we sometimes ignore a debate because we just dislike the person making the point?  Do we make throwaway remarks?  Do we say things like ‘They should be shot’?  You see each little bit of hatred we give in to allows someone further along the line to push their hatred a bit further too.

Flooding 9 weeks after Storm Desmond

Nine weeks after Storm Desmond began the flooding problems they are getting worse rather than better in some areas.  A flood on a 100 acre Turlough has left over 30 houses marooned.  The following is a youtube link where some images of the situation can be seen.  It has become worse not better since these shots were taken.

20 Rules from Political Life

There are a few rules I’ve learned from political life over the years that are worth sharing:

1. Opinions are like body parts. Only the well formed bits should be on show. Most should be kept to yourself or only shared with a significant other.

2. Whatever is happening the consequences of it will never be as bad as the fear of the consequences.

3. A crisis is subject to a law of gravity. It always gets worse.

4. Only after you offer to help sort out a problem and get involved do people actually tell you just how bad the problem is.

5. All policies are polo mints. Nice, serve a purpose but will always have a hole in the middle.

6. Insults are only thrown when you are actually having an impact.

7. Never believe your own hype. The other guys are not as bad as you say they are and you are not as good as you think.

8. Sitting on a problem is like sitting on a hot stove. You manage it for a little while but it eventually burns your ass.

9. Take time before giving anyone an instruction. An order you regret is the one order you can be sure they will carry out perfectly.

10. People are liars. They say what they think they should say (good or bad) but its rarely what they actually want.

11. Everyone thinks they are the worst off. Everyone thinks there is a conspiracy against their section or grouping and everyone believes they are the only ones with the intelligence to see it.

12. Friends are great. Friends are also the people most likely to cause you to compromise yourself. No one ever got in trouble over a favour for an enemy.

13. You can panic. You can worry. You can have doubts. But when the door opens you meet the world with a great big smile and tell them you are always in control.

14. When it comes to forming partnerships necessity makes previously repugnant people become strangely attractive. A coalition government is like the last slow set in a nightclub.

15. The effectiveness of a decision is directly proportional to the number of people responsible for taking it. The buck must stop somewhere.

16. The greater the ego grows the more delicate it becomes.

17. No matter how great you are there is always someone to take your place and in time you will be a footnote.

18. Popularity is a credit card, the trick is to spend it and disappear before the bill comes in.

19. There is nothing you will do but a musician, actor or model will point out how they would have done it better.

20. The devil haunts a hungry man. When in need you will do most anything.

Coffee and a Chat with Roisin Shortall

Today I met Roisin Shortall in Leinster House. I stopped her and asked her for a coffee and a chat about the new Social Democrats. I am glad to say she was very obliging and here is the resulting interview we did on the spot.

Ireland misses a glorious chance on Greece

Over on the Slugger O’Toole site today I am making the argument that Ireland has missed a chance on the Greek crisis. The Irish government should have been at the centre of negotiations as an honest broker that could see both sides. The failure to see this opportunity and grasp the nettle is a sad reflection of the lack of political ambition in Ireland today. It also indicates just how short-sighted and ‘play it safe’ we have become.

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