Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Yes Minister – The 3 types of politicians and their advisers

Over the years there have been many movie and TV depictions of Politicians and their advisers. It is a strange relationship, often fraught with danger. Good communication is essential to politics but it is also something that is very subjective. Advising a politician can be a difficult business. To do so effectively you must have their trust and you must believe in each other’s abilities.

In my experience, for some strange reason, women can be easier to advise. I’m not sure why but they can sometimes take criticism far better and respect opinion, without falling out, to a much greater degree than their male counterparts.

The biggest problem is of course that the adviser is not the person in the cross hairs and the politician often can’t see the wood for the trees. Striking that balance is key. Just as politicians vary in style so to do advisers. Anybody in PR will tell you that there is a range of approaches and personality types in the business. I, for instance, readily admit to being difficult. I am always seeing the cloud in every silver lining. If I am asked to advise anyone, then it will always be in a ‘robust’ manner where sorting the failings is the priority. Others specialise in more delicate diplomacy and gentle nudging. Different people work better with different types.

All that said I have generally found there to be three types of politician and for the sake of discussion I thought I’d expand a little on them.

The first type is the Alpha-Pol. Now this politician sees themselves at the head of the pack. They are utterly dominant. Everybody on their team is an employee of theirs and would be nothing without them. The Alpha-pol always needs to be in control of the room. When advising you need to remember your place. You never approach an Alpha-pol head on; they must be approached from the side. If their latest policy is absolute rubbish or they are saying some half baked statement that only they could possibly believe, there is no point telling them that straight out. You must find a time and opportunity to do so. You can never let the Alpha-pol feel like you are challenging them. This means that a lot of time gets wasted. Particularly in a crisis where time is essential. Rather than being in a position to do some plain talking and get the issues ironed out, you have to bide your time gently introducing material and nudging the Alpha -pol along. Timing is everything with them. It’s a frustrating position. In the end the Alpha-pol is really beyond control, in the right circumstance you can reason with them but usually when it matters most, there isn’t time to say what needs to be done and it’s a position guaranteed to leave everyone with regrets and ‘if onlys’

Next comes the Egg. I firmly believe that the majority of politicians fall into this category. The Egg gives the impression of a strong solid exterior. It can take a certain amount of things being lightly thrown at it and still protect what’s inside. However we all know just how brittle Egg shells are. One thing that unifies nearly all politicians is a sense of ego. You need this to survive. Without it the abuse would simply devour you. The problem is that this ego needs to be stroked. Without it the shell just cracks. The politician must be reassured that they can win the election, that they have the ability and that they are right in what they say. So, when the go on Vincent Browne or Prime Time and makes a dog’s dinner of everything, you can’t meet them face on and say: ‘That was shite; we need to sort out a plan for tomorrow’. You first, have to tell them all the things they did right. You must encourage them and agree with them that it’s all just the nasty people out there conspiring to hate them. They are just misunderstood. When you have focussed on all the great points of their interview (The lovely smile to the camera, that one come back to Vincent, and telling Miriam to ‘let me finish’ that very important point), then and only then can you stick in a few add on’s about the negatives (There were a few bad comments on twitter but we can deal with that, You looked blankly at the camera and your eyes glistened but those bloody lights were so bright, you got the figures all wrong but we can issue a statement…). The Egg can do a good job but you are always advising with one hand behind your back. They struggle to see that you are in their corner and need to be reassured. There is always a risk that criticism will send them into a panic, scare them and leave them even worse the next time they go out. However, it’s a lonely job for the adviser who knows the truth but has to waste so much effort protecting the egg and trying to keep them on track. On the other hand a manipulative adviser knows that the Egg can be controlled and worked to become a manufactured thing. The problem is, such politicians are eventually found out, but hopefully not before the adviser his lined up a lucrative new deal elsewhere.

Finally there is the Rock. The rarest of all in politics. In fact so rare that you can go through years of elections and not come across one. When they do arrive though they are to be admired and are usually highly effective. The Rock cares little about the criticism because despite getting lumps knocked off them every now and then, they believe in themselves. The Rock likes to hear the good news stories and the odd compliment like the rest of us, but when it comes to business they are not interested in egotistical praise. They value the criticism. They know that the stuff they got right does not need to be improved; it’s the stuff they got wrong they want to focus on. You can hurl yourself with all the might you have at a Rock, they don’t mind. You can have a standing up row and they probably welcome it because they know you only do it to try benefiting them. Sometimes if you are strong enough you can move the position of the Rock, make it roll a different direction and that is the purpose of your job. At other times, despite your best efforts, the Rock will not budge. This means that things can go disastrously, but it also provides balance. The politician knows it’s their neck on the line and has a redline for what they believe. The adviser does their best but can only advise. Such relationships are built on mutual respect and deep friendships.

The funny thing about politics is that most politicians who read this will identify themselves as ‘Rocks’. They are not. The vast majority are Eggs whose advisers will tell them that they are Rocks. As for the few Alpha-pols well they wouldn’t waste their time reading some two bit blog piece from some jumped up nobody in the first place, and no one will dare tell them about it anyway.

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2 thoughts on “Yes Minister – The 3 types of politicians and their advisers

  1. Johnny,
    You have surpassed yourself this time! A most entertaining and insightful analysis.

    Using your categorisation, I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two Rocks, two Alpha-Eggs (a special sub-category) and one who defied categorisation. There was one other potential Rock but he hasn’t yet hatched out of his egg.

    A one-time adviser to Dick Spring, Dave Grafton, told me he divided the genus ‘Government Minister’ into two types ‘Office Holders’ and ‘Power Wielders’. I have found that distinction to be both accurate very useful and I have challenged a few ministers with it from time to time when trying to get them to ‘do the right thing’.

  2. Gerry Walker on said:

    Johnny, a Chinese proverb (most Zen~like in scope) states that the man is brave who dares to swat the fly on the penis of the water buffalo. Admittedly it sounds better in the original mandarin but you get the drift.

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