Is ‘Brand’ Abbott Doomed? Not So, It Would Appear

Prime Minister Julia Gillard // Opposition leader Tony Abbott answers a question posed by a voter at a community forum at the Broncos League Club on August 18, 2010 in Brisbane, Australia. Both parties are in the final week of campaigning before Australians head to the polls on August 21 to elect their 43rd Parliament.
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The vultures are circling. After a string of gaffes, unpopular policies and dire polls, things look grim for Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Is it time to go or can some precise PR, branding and marketing save the PM from the electoral gallows? B&T asked some industry luminaries if ‘brand’ Abbott could be saved and, surprisingly, the answer appears a resounding ‘yes’.

“I certainly don’t think you can use humour to change ‘brand’ Abbott,” said Jonathon Pease, managing partner at ideas agency Tongue.

Pease believes Abbott’s problem is he’s not controlling the message – the media is. “He needs to take back the message, he needs to call a spill (for the leadership) and see how it plays out; it’s inevitable anyway. By doing that he controls the conversation, he becomes transparent, he’s the one controlling the agenda, the conversation.

“As a brand, I think he can be saved; but if he does nothing things will only get worse. He needs to get on the front foot, do it for the Party, not the media,” Pease says.

Is Abbott’s real problem that he’s never been liked by the electorate? How do you even begin to change that?

“Woah, that would be a massive undertaking,” Pease said. “If he could be more inclusive, more transparent; all the reports are he can’t be relied on, he doesn’t listen.

“He’s not dissimilar to brands we see all the time. It’s not about going out and yelling about your products and services from the rooftop, it’s about fixing things on the inside of your business. It’s internal comms work, internal engagement, that sort of stuff. That’s the overhaul the Abbott brand needs. It’s actually not a voter facing job.”

Grant Titmus, principal at PR firm Red Agency, believes if Abbott can survive the coming months he’ll lead the Coalition to the next election.

“My counsel in the early days regarding Prince Phillip’s knighthood would have been to say he had made a mistake and most people would have probably moved on,” Titmus said. “What will help the Prime Minister in the short term is for the media to be distracted by something else – and that is more than Peter Greste being freed.”

Titmus argues that the Rudd/Gillard fiasco proved that a change of leader is no guarantee of success.

“My advice would be to ride it out and work on building his credibility back with his party. We must remember popularity is something that comes and goes. Ultimately government is about leadership and effectiveness – and that is what history judges you on,” he said.

Leilani Abels, managing director of Thrive PR, said Abbott is safe until someone challenges, but adds “a lot can change in 24, make that 12 hours”.

Abels agreed Abbott’s a victim of a “media witch hunt”, pesky journalists quick to stick a microphone under any disillusioned Party member they can find. “The discontent of a handful will dominate the headlines over the majority,” she said.

To re-brand, Abels said the PM’s plan needs to be two-fold. Firstly, he needs to assure the electorate that he’s ‘Mr Dependability’. Secondly, that “delivers a message to Coalition members that they should not replicate the in-house conflict seen with the previous government”.

Abels added that the great PR story out of this won’t be what Abbott does, rather it will be how any potential rival – Turnbull and Bishop – might behave.

Adam Ferrier – consumer psychologist, chief strategy officer at Cummins & Partners and Gruen Transfer regular – agreed that “one hundred per cent he (Abbott) can be saved”.

Ferrier – who, arguably, is no fan of the sitting Prime Minister – said the problem for Abbott is he has such deeply held beliefs that he always acts in accordance with those beliefs.

“Whenever he gets to freeform or think for himself it just shows how deluded and out of touch he is when compared to progressive 2015 Australia. He became Prime Minister not by espousing his own views, he got there by belittling other people’s views. When you’re the ‘attack dog’ you can attack, and he’s been very good at that. Now he’s the ‘main man’ he’s been found out with the way he thinks and feels.”

And Ferrier’s advice to the PM? “Yes, he can be saved but to do that he is never to speak from the heart; he should never let Australia know what he really feels and thinks about an issue and make sure he gets media guidance on anything he says say. I think when he reveals himself he shows himself not to be particularly relevant to Australia today.”

Ferrier also sees merit in the Party replacing him altogether. “The Liberal Party likes to say it’s a broad church, which means now’s the perfect time for Party members to show they don’t all see the world like the prime minister. If the feedback from the electorate is they don’t agree with Abbott either then it’s a perfect time to show that they’re capable of change, that there is some independent thinking going on there and put a more progressive foot forward.”

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