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.