Why pollies are among the best (and worst) media performers

A fixture in our media training is an archive of media performances by politicians, who make great examples of ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’.

Whether it’s a media interview or a public speaking engagement requiring superior presentation skills, the good ones (regardless of how you rate their politics or their party) rarely get it wrong.

They also tend to readily translate those skills to life-after-politics and stay relevant well after the poor performers, who are left to flounder in the ‘where are they now?’ file.

So, it was no surprise to encounter a relaxed and jovial John Howard speaking at a City of Logan breakfast in Queensland recently. The former Australian Prime Minister has lost none of his oratory skills in political retirement, regaling a business breakfast audience with anecdotes about his life and times at Kirribilli House.

Among his funny stories and moving memories, Mr Howard delivered his take on leadership. What skills do you need to lead? What makes a good leader? How can you recognise leadership in others? While Mr Howard was speaking about political leadership, he acknowledged that much of his advice applies to any profession. Likewise, it applies to PR and media audiences.

Here’s our top 5 leadership takeaways from our audience with the former PM:

Never underestimate the people.

By ‘the people’, John Howard means the electorate. He actually describes them as ‘guile and shrewd’.  The same is true of media audiences. After all, they’re one and the same as the electorate. Mr Howard’s message remains the same when it comes to PR:  remember that your audience is astute and intelligent.

When people are involved in making key decisions, they’re less likely to oppose or buck the system, even when they disagree with the outcome. For Mr Howard, consulting with ministers and backbenchers on key issues reduced the likelihood of sensitive Cabinet information being leaked. In PR terms, the same applies. Consult your staff, customers, members and stakeholders before announcing your next move to the world.  ‘The people’ are more likely to support you if you involve them from the start.

Get ready to fail.

He knows it seems counter-intuitive and ‘a bit negative’ but Mr Howard says it’s reality. Being a good leader means accepting there will be times that you fail. And this is good because it enables you to make decisions and to take risks. He says any leader promising to never fail should be sacked on the spot because they’ll never achieve anything. They’ll be paralysed by fear of failure. With PR, this is about accepting that you won’t always achieve perfection when it comes to your communications wish list. That doesn’t mean you should stop engaging.

Take advice.

Good leaders listen to others and actively seek alternative views, says John Howard. They are not afraid to be challenged or to shift their position, if it’s warranted. His wife Janette was a brutally honest critic, as well as a priceless sounding board, he says.

Mr Howard recalled days he’d come home proud of his efforts in Parliament only to be told that his performance played badly on television. When it comes to PR, listen to advice. Just because you know your stuff doesn’t mean you can’t give some consideration to the way ‘the people’ will perceive your message and delivery style.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Asked how he would like history to remember him, Mr Howard said he hoped ‘my government was one that delivered on things that mattered’. Mr Howard says that, while former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made many mistakes, he got the big things right and that’s what matters most.

Same goes in PR – it’s the big picture that counts.  Not every story will generate a sale but it will help to explain your value proposition to ‘the people’ and ensure the story of your brand is top of mind for their astute and intelligent consideration.

Fran Metcalf

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