Sean Lloyd






International relations


Sep 2018 - May 2020

By Sean Lloyd

Customer-centric politics?

As we headed to Oxford for Module 7, the Australian federal election turned up a result that surprised most pundits and pollsters: the minority coalition government was returned with an increased majority. And in the UK, as the module got underway, Theresa May announced her resignation as Prime Minister after her Brexit path became unnavigable.

I’ve touched before on modern politics and the dangers of trying to propose a fix or predict an outcome. But having just finished up our marketing course, there’s an element of these results that bears relevance to both politics and my own profession in international affairs: how you harness the changing nature of communication in the digital era.

Now, there isn’t an election where we don’t end up talking about cut-through messaging. John Howard won the 2004 Australian election in the ‘pre-social media’ era in Australia on the simple theme of “Who do you trust?”. But social media, data analytics and the speed of the news cycle are changing the way messaging works practically, and how it’s deployed. If there’s anything we’ve learnt from some of the ‘surprise’ results of the past few years – be it Donald Trump’s 2016 success, the Brexit campaign, or the success of Scott Morrison in the Australian election last month, it’s the importance of defining your ‘customer’ and then creating an effective messaging strategy aimed at those customers: customer-centric politics, if you will. In marketing we learnt the three key elements of customer-centric marketing as strong and widely-held values; empathy for customers and listening; and authentic feedback loops.

If there is a common methodological thread through recent surprise election results, it’s the way messaging cut-through underpinned success. To use the marketing analysis, all three of Trump, Brexit and Morrison had strong, widely-held values: although the messages of the three campaigns espoused different beliefs and target markets, it was clear what the winner stood for. On the other side, it wasn’t so clear: both Hillary Clinton and Bill Shorten in the US and Australia, respectively, struggled to define their core message from broad and deep policy platforms. And in the UK, the Remain side had difficulty explaining what it was ‘for’ – the status quo is always a harder message to sell. When it comes to more recent Brexit events, the clean message of the Leave campaign became lost in the complexity of actually trying to effect Brexit.

At the same time, the winners in all three campaigns put in place feedback loops to learn from the “left-behind” voters – or in the case of the recent Australian election, “the quiet Australians”. They offered empathy with their concerns and avoided judgement on specific issues. And they targeted their messages to those voters clearly and effectively. Unlike the broader polling methodologies, which are struggling to cope with the social media age and shifting voter dynamics, the merits of combining data analytics with close-in, detailed polling played out in all three campaign successes.

So if there’s a lesson for this in my own profession, it’s around the way foreign services engage with our own customers: our citizens, and those of the countries we serve in. Much of what is produced for external consumption by foreign services tends to be pushed out from headquarters and still using traditional, bureaucratic language and styles: foreign service blogs are rarely influencers! But there’s a need for foreign services to enter the modern communication age as well: that means developing what some have called “diplometrics” to measure how we engage our customers: building better feedback loops to understand how they want to be engaged, and how we can best communicate the values and goals of our country. There’s a lesson from marketing, but there’s also a lesson from the Trump Twitter feed: sometimes, simple, direct messaging can be more effective than hedged lines of careful government-speak. While there’s still a place for tradition in the sometimes antiquated way foreign services speak to each other, this doesn’t need to be the same with our customers. Food for thought for a marketing assignment, anyway…

Dinner at St Hugh’s College

At the Oxford Union

Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are my own and not as a representative of the Australian Government.

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