The Rise of the Royals and the Fall of Tony Abbott:
How Spin Doctors Can Make You or Break You
By Maegan Gillespie for COMU3222 at UQ, receiving a High Distinction for this work.
Struggling organisations, outrageous stars and political celebrities all have one thing in common: their communications teams. The subtlety of these public relations professionals and spin doctors can be hit or miss for these individuals. Nonetheless, the consistent use of spin for individuals and organisations in the media goes without question. This essay will explore the prevalence of spin in modern media, the core terms and concepts relevant to the art of spin along with exploring spin doctoring through examples of it at its best and its worst. In exploration of spin success, the changing image of the British monarchy will be discussed. Whilst Tony Abbotts short term as Australian Prime Minister will be analysed in relation to spin gone wrong. The aim of this essay is to analyse each example in order to discuss the modern public relations phenomenon of spin-doctoring, along with what makes spin ineffective or effective and the subsequent power it has within mass media.
Spin can be defined as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses”, or simply the steering of public opinion through mass communication and media management (Bernays; Tye, 1998; Louw, 2010). The evolution of PR began with Edward Bernays. Now known at the father of propaganda, Bernays instigated the political and communicative role of spin doctor. In a post world war two society, Bernays used spin through his peace time propaganda, which through employment of the scapegoat technique instilled society with a fear of communism (Tye, 1998). Whether they be called public relations personnel, media advisors or press secretaries these spin doctors work to use the press to portray the ideal image or push a particular agenda for their clients (Louw, 2010). Now in todays modern liberal democratic society, these individuals have advanced communicative spin techniques in order to work with journalists and the media to steer public opinion.
Concepts such as watchdog journalism, demonization, the manufactured celebrity, public profile and pseudo-controversy all influence the success or lack thereof of spin doctoring. Watchdog journalism refers to the ‘fourth estate’ journalists see themselves in. Which places them within the democratic process as “active participants tasked with making sure the judicial players do not abuse their power” or essentially giving them the job of watchdog (Louw, 2010 p21). Whereas, demonization sees journalists demonize an individual repeatedly in the media, subsequently creating a celebrity through societies mass consumption of their name and negative image (Louw, 2010 p124). Although not a positive public profile, the media spins stories to instil a negative impression of the individual to the public. Whilst the manufactured celebrity is quite the opposite. The spin-doctors, often political, follow a series of steps to create a public ‘face’ for their client, and generate public ‘performances’ for the face to be performed. Therefore, pushing them into the public sphere (Louw, 2010 p.111) These performances can often be pseudo-controversial or trivial often not newsworthy issues or events. These may or may not influence a public profile, but rather simply put that individual in the eye of the media (Louw, 2010 p84). Public profile itself is defined as the regard in which journalists and mass media have for the organisation, politician or celebrity (Louw, 2010 p.64). The term ‘media darling’ is often used in relation to public profile, for those individuals or groups who are popular amongst the media and subsequently are not asked difficult questions or demonized (Louw, 2010 p.64).
In 1997, after the unexpected death of Princess Diana, the royal family’s initial reaction drew a series of negative press (Davies, 2012). The monarchy had become too elitist, which meant society began viewing the monarchical institution as outdated and unnecessary (Pierce, 2007). Although they were celebrities since birth, their image of distant, elite and out of reach, caused their popularity with their publics to diminish. To combat this Clarence House Press Office, who represent William (Will), the Prince of Wales and Katherine (Kate), The Duchess of Cornwall, used the young royals as a means to reimage the monarchy (Freddy, 2012).
Paddy Harverson, the communications secretary for the royals at Clarence House used mass societies love of human interest stories to manipulate the wedding of Will and Kate into a major PR event (BBC, 2011). Through an international broadcast of the wedding, updates given through social media and sneak peaks leading up to the event saw Harverson influence social media and modern technology to create hype around the wedding and the royals themselves. This ‘hype making’ not only distracted publics from negative press, but repeatedly put the royals into the media, forcing them into the public sphere and thus growing their celebrity status (Louw, 2010, p1 & p111). Following this event, the hype around the royals flourished, as Kate and Will grew their family similar hype was repeated with the birth of Prince George and Princess Charlotte (Haul. S, 2015; Zhang. J, 2015). Despite negative press throughout this time, such as Kate’s topless photos or Prince Harry’s various misdemeanours, the royals and Harverson have managed to use spin-doctoring techniques such as distraction, to not only maintain their public image but enhance it (TMZ, 2016; Nelson, 2012; Evening Herald, 2012).
Through these strategies of distraction, which saw the royal spin team providing entertaining, human interest focused content on the royals, they kept the masses disengaged from any negativity that may be reported (Louw, 2010, p77). In fact, with the royal’s public image so strong, with mass media feeding into the spin, negative media was often overlooked by their adoring publics (Gearin, 2015). Furthermore, the modern phenomenon of junkyard journalism, which de-politicises the media and turns celebrity human interest stories towards sensationalism have found the royal family of particular interest, increasing their media coverage (Louw, 2010 p126). A clear example of this is the recent viral image of a pyjama clad Prince George, meeting the President of the United States, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. The image was released by Kensington Palace on their Twitter page (Kensington Palace, 2016; Mclean. R, 2016). Little George in his pyjamas strengthens their ‘average family’ public image, an image which has become strongly controlled and manipulated. Eric Louw discusses how the ideal constructed celebrity is relatable, ‘normal’ with features that their public identify with (Louw, 2010, p112). The royal family have done just this, Luisa Baldini, the royal correspondent of the BBC describes. The relationship between the media and the monarchy is symbiotic, Baldini explains, benefiting both the monarchy and their popularity and feeding into the media’s adoration and obsession with the ‘just like you’ normalised royals (Baldini, 2012).
In addition, sporadic reports of pseudo-controversy, particularly on Kate Middleton, is often spun to the benefit of the royals. For instance, in a recent visit to India, Kate’s long dress blew up in a gust of wind, almost revealing her upper leg (Norwin, 2016). Whilst not a negative report, Harverson and her team worked to spin the story to portray Kate as ‘modern’ and ‘normal’ for not having weights sewn into the seem of her skirts, as the Queen herself does (Norwin, 2016). These pseudo-controversies merely add fuel to the fire that is the media’s love of the royals. In conjunction with Harverson’s strategies of distraction, these events have added to the public profile of the monarchy. Louw explains how the ideal situation is “to become a media darling”, as journalists “tend not to ask them difficult questions” (Louw, 2010 p64). The modernisation of the royal family, Kate and Will particularly has established them as exactly this. Their position as media darlings means any news or speculation puts them on the front pages of magazines, newspapers, webpages and social media trends worldwide.
The successful spin of the British monarchies press team is undeniable through the various spin methods employed. In stark contrast, the political history of Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia portrays spin at its least successful. The political aspect of the media sphere during Abbotts time as Prime Minister was influenced greatly by the Watergate scandal of 1972. The event now known as ‘Watergate’, saw espionage cover ups by politicians in the United States at the Democratic Party’s Watergate HQ (Louw, 2010 p52). This scandal shocked journalists into instant mistrust of journalists, and this resonated not only within the United States, but globally. This post-Watergate watchdog-ism promoted a journalistic discourse of suspicion and mistrust, which lead to the generation of journalistic genre ‘junkyard journalism’ (Louw, 2010). A combination of muckraking and adversarial watchdog-ism, junkyard journalism is essentially a form of attack journalism that reports on politics and politicians in a harsh and intrusive manner (Louw, 2010 p52). Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and CEO of News Limited internationalised junkyard journalism due to its sensationalised manner being profitable and entertaining for mass publics (Louw, 2010 p53). This modern journalistic genre was the media sphere in which Abbotts various missteps became demonised.
Abbott communications team changed often, perhaps due to the struggle his spin-doctors faced in successfully creating a positive public profile. Sarah Whyte reports how whilst prime minister Tony Abbott spent $4.3 million a year on his spin-doctoring communications team. Jane McMillan was Abbotts press office director up until the end of 2014, to be replaced with Andrew Hirst along with the acquisition of former ABC correspondent Mark Simkin as chief press secretary. The only constant in his team was Peta Credlin, Abbotts Chief of Staff. After the political spill that saw Abbott voted out of office, Credlin’s influence on Abbott became a topic amongst media professionals. Aaron Patrick describes how Credlin attempted to create plausible deniability within all of her work with Abbott, through diversion and distraction (Patrick, 2016). An example of this is stunting a charity event in the wake of negative reports or controversial comments, as Matthewson reports on The New Daily in the wake of various international Islamic State attacks (Matthewson, 2015).
Abbott, as a political celebrity, was a spin-doctors worst nightmare. From eating onions raw, to threatening to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin along with blocking MPs from having a free vote on gay marriage and awarding Prince Phillip a knighthood (Tsvirko, 2015). Abbott made choices that were unpopular with his publics, which the junkyard journalists maximised upon. So much so that no amount of attempted spin-doctoring could change the ridicule and demonization taking place. Social media capitalised on these instances creating viral ‘memes’ and content that spread like wild fire across social media, in an unstoppable tirade that no amount of distraction or spin could stop (Massola & Cox, 2014). This demonization saw Abbotts every move or comment was scrutinised and demonized. Whether he be making comments against the rights of women or stating that “shit happens” when soldiers die in war each comment that Abbott issued apologies for, and Credlin and her team worked towards spinning or creating plausible deniability around, was never forgotten amongst the mass media and subsequently his publics (Dick, 2011; Massola, 2015).
Credlin and her team often attempted to brush Abbott’s awkward interview or missteps off as ‘dad joke’ moments (Robertson, 2015). But as Abbott’s errors continued, it stopped being funny to the media and started becoming ridiculous (Uhlmann, 2015). When Abbott made the decision to knight Prince Phillip, many ridiculed him for not consulting any of the leadership group and for stating it was his “captains call” (Uhlmann, 2015). Elite Theory involves the idea that an elite minority run the politics of a country whilst the masses are subordinate. This concept of politics being elite whilst the public is subordinate, without involvement, no longer thrives in a modern democratic society. Particularly in conjunction with the previously mentioned ‘every day’ or ‘normalised’ celebrity that mass society adore and the harsh criticism of junkyard journalism. Abbott discovered this through making the decision independent of his party to knight Prince Phillip.
Successful spin sees public opinion amongst mass media steered to the benefit of the politician. However, often Abbott’s spin simply raised more watchdog-ism among journalists and media. Another example of this is Abbott’s eating of onions during visits to Australian onion farms (Campagnoni, 2015). This was perhaps an attempt to ‘normalise’ him as a celebrity, bring him more down to earth in order to increase his popularity among the every day voters. Brenda Luthar describes how a “common national normality [is] performed through the celebrification and humanization of political figures in the popular media” (Luthar, 2010). Instead, his eating of raw onions on multiple occasions just increased the distance between Abbott as an individual and his voters. Not only this, but it instigated ridicule across international media (Beers, 2015). The impact of this bizarre political move was even continued after Abbott was deposed, with a twitter hashtag #putoutyouronions trending internationally during the liberal spill that saw Abbott deposed (Hume, 2015).
When his own comments or actions instigated demonization, and his spin team failed to distract from this, Credlin and her team attempted ‘dirty tricks’ spin. Which involves having a communications team research and follow the acts and plans of the opposition, in order to be prepared for any information they have on their client or any information they may find on their client’s opposition (Louw, 2010 p94). Abbott often tried to call out his opposition, Labour Party Leader, Bill Shorten. However, whilst the media reported negatively on Shorten for any misdemeanours, they were also well aware of the hypocrisy of Abbott himself when doing so. One report depicts how Abbott called out Bill shorten for avoiding questions, when a few years prior Abbott froze on live television and stood in complete silence rather than answer the question asked of him (Dick, 2011; Massola, 2015).
All attempts at positive spin, distraction, plausible deniability and manufactured celebrity techniques led Abbott down the road of demonization. Which put not only himself, but Credlin and the rest of the communications team into disrepair and public scrutiny and subsequently led to the Liberal spill that discredited them all.
Abbott’s PR team was therefore unsuccessful in their handling of his public political career, as they failed to steer the publics opinion to be inline with Abbott and his policies. In comparison, the royal family have managed to transform their public profile amongst the mass media from the negative elitist perception of the late 90s to the ‘every day’ celebrity and ‘media darlings’. Spin doctoring is a unique communications process that requires great foresight and manipulative skill. The power of steering public opinion without their knowledge, and more so without their criticism, is a powerful skill clearly evidenced throughout the work of Harverson for the young royals. Whilst not a day passes without comment on some aspect of the royal’s lives amongst the media, the fallen Tony Abbott continues to be criticised and his ineffective spin analysed amongst media and communications professionals. These examples of successful and unsuccessful spin clearly demonstrate the power spin-doctoring can have on their clients. The intricate workings of spin-doctors may be subtle, or not so much, but in either case it’s unmistakeable how spin in modern society can make a career or break it.
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