Sunday 01 October 2023

PN: You have a problem with your PR

This article was first published on Malta Today 

For a while now I have been noticing that every time the Nationalist Party attempts to “do something” to recover its lost foothold in the popularity stakes, there is always some kind of mis-step. Certainly, it’s no mean feat to gain back so much lost ground, but you would think that in the light of all the governmental blunders and outright wrong moves (not to mention broken promises), voters would be looking at the PN in a new light.

However, it doesn’t seem to be enough that the Labour Government has let many of those who “gave them a chance” down so badly. So while many first-time Labour voters (and even traditional Labour voters) have vowed never to vote for the party again, I doubt that their disenchantment is going to lead them to switch their vote over to the PN.

Because frankly, when they glance over to the other side of the fence, what do they see? A series of PR decisions which are off kilter and which make me wonder whether anyone is actually sitting down to analyze what message the PN is trying to convey, and what perception they are trying to give.

Let’s start with that video in English: Lovin’ Malta carried out an interview with the PM where Muscat came off looking relatively well. They then offered the same opportunity to the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Busuttil, driving his car with interviewer Christian Peregin sitting next to him. They were both conducted in English (and not as erroneously stated in the print version of this article). Now I certainly have no problem with using the English language, but when it comes to politics, there is a time and a place for its use. What audience was this intended for? Because if Simon was aiming his message towards the already PN-voting English speaking audience, then I’m not quite sure there was even a need for it. They’re going to vote for you anyway. Unfortunately, what it did do was alienate the vast majority whose first language in Maltese and who, whether we like it or not, already have an ingrained, knee-jerk, Pavlovian reaction against those who speak English. It simply reinforces their deep-felt belief that the Nationalist party is for those posh types who think they are “better than everyone else” and who speak English precisely for this reason. (I’m not saying this is indeed the case because I speak in English all the time with many of my friends, but this type of prejudice is almost impossible to erase). Now I don’t know whose idea it was to do the interview in English, but in any case, Busuttil’s PR people should have thought a bit more deeply before accepting this decision. As it is, he came off sounding like the epitome of everything which makes ordinary Joes break out in a rash. There was little to connect him with the “common people”, whose votes, I am assuming, are the votes he needs.

Those corner meetings: I have seen a few photos here and there of what are being described as ‘corner meetings’ being held by the PN in various towns and villages. In each case, the attendance seems dismal. Now I realise that the photos may have been taken too early, but although I searched as best I could, I could not find any photo showing a good crowd. What can I say? Whoever thought that holding political gatherings when it’s still officially summer, and while people are trying to make the most of the warm weather before it gets too cold and before the school routine sets in, is really completely out of touch with the Maltese psyche. We are still in laid-back summer mode. The last thing people want to think about is politics being force-fed to them in the village square during a balmy evening by some politician spouting the same old rhetoric. And a corner meeting? Really? That’s taking the way political communication is done backwards instead of forwards.

Campaigning too early: The PN has announced that it will officially “switch on the engines” of its election campaign this Wednesday, 21st September, during the Independence Day celebrations. It tells us, quite proudly, that these engines won’t be switched off until the general elections roll around sometime in 2018.
Does the thought of this fill you with dread and make you want to run away and hide until it’s all over? Because, personally, my heart sank at the thought that the official campaigning is going to start already.
Again, I’m afraid the PN seems to be completely out of sync with the national zeitgeist. Either that or they are not reading the same online comments as I am, and are not speaking to the electorate either. (The dearth of interest in the corner meetings should have been a major clue).
It’s too early, much too early, to start bombarding us with campaign slogans and messages.

If you need proof that this is a bad idea, just take a look at what has happened in the US which has had one of the longest, most gruelling election campaigns in history. Between the campaigns until the Democratic and Republican candidates were chosen, and the full-on campaign between Trump and Clinton which has been dragging on for months, American voters are fed up to the back teeth and with two months to go, they just want the whole thing to be over. Many don’t like either candidate and are not going to vote. Many others have stopped watching the news or reading online comments because this election has divided the country in a way which US campaigns rarely do.
Rifts have been created between friends and family which is unusual for the States (although all too familiar for us here).
And here we are, with the prospect of being in election mode ourselves for at least a year and a half, depending on when the date of the election will be. That’s too long, especially in a situation where you have much of the electorate seriously alienated from both large parties because trust has been eroded so badly.

The case of Salvu Mallia: It was just the other day that the colourful, opinionated Salvu Mallia was lashing out with equal vitriol against both the PN and PL. Completely disgusted by the Labour party for whom he had voted, he was busy helping Marlene Farrugia with the setting up of the new Orange Party. Yet, on Friday, we were regaled with the surprising news that he is now going to be on the PN ticket instead. Good luck to him, as the saying goes. But I wonder at the wisdom of such a strategy on the part of the Nationalist party – if it is going down the same “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” route as the Labour party did in 2013, when it brought on board all those who were disgruntled against the Nationalist Government, then it is no wonder that voters look at all of this with more and more disillusion.

When political parties embrace prospective candidates with such ease, irrespective of whether their ideology even tallies with that of the party, one wonders if it even makes sense to talk about campaigning any more. It all just seems like an opportunistic merry-go-round where a candidate eyes the party which will probably give him/her the platform they need, and to hell with actually bothering what you really stand for.

Because the optics matter. Which brings me to my final point. It is all well and good to lambast the Labour Government (and rightly so) for choosing Big Business over the need to protect our natural environment. But then you have Simon visiting the Palumbo shipyards, and keeping very silent about the Manoel Island/MIDI saga and you begin to wonder. If you are not seen to be doing the right thing then you don’t blame voters for asking whether politicians really cares about us, the people, except for when they knock on the door for our vote.

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