Source: PA Wire via PA Images
SOCKS, SPOONS, AND Stormtroopers. A llama, a lollipop and five portions of chicken balls.
This might sound like a typical day inside John Halligan’s brain, but while the majority of us would love to examine what’s going on in said organ, in fact it’s a rundown of Leo Varadkar’s most popular tweets.
A quick scan through @campaignforleo’s feed shows we can’t get enough of our Tweet-seach. With 113k followers, and regularly high levels of engagement, his online presence is as popular as a free bar at a Christmas party. We keep going back even though we know we’ve probably had enough.
Don’t be fooled by the fluff
Many of the posts are so inoffensively saccharine they make even the Toy Show seem a bit bolshie. And there’s one Leo for every member of the audience. Domestic Leo? There he is stacking dishwashers. Cool Leo? Touring Disney studios. Cute Leo? Surrounded by schoolkids on steps. Totally-with-it Leo? Wishing Gerard Fleming well with a wacky wink.
But don’t be fooled by the fluffy stuff. Behind it lies a serious communications strategy to promote Leo as the Statesman-next-door, juxtaposing pictures of him beside Tusk and Trudeau, or opening social housing projects, with chippy comments about Cabinet papers arriving, accompanied by the inevitable ‘#homework’.
It’s a carefully-crafted persona designed to capitalise on Leo’s personal popularity. Tell us something we don’t know, says you. Well, love it or hate it, @campaignforleo is now one of the most powerful weapons in the government’s communications artillery.
Team Leo take Twitter
An example of how importantly Team Leo take Twitter came in an unusual way last Thursday when the 2017 Sports Capital Grants were announced by Shane Ross.
After spending days in the trenches battling Fianna Fail troops, a wounded Leo emerged all-guns-blazing with a rapid-fire series of tweets sports capital grants going to clubs in his constituency.
In all, six separate, near-identical tweets congratulating individual clubs in Dublin West on their funding allocations. Eyebrows cocked in surprise. What on earth was the Taoiseach of Ireland doing congratulating the Phoenix Cricket Club for getting €1,902 in grants? Was it not a bit cyber-parochial? Hang on, a few thought, was this the latest initiative of the Strategic Communications Unit?
Ah, the SCU. That old sausage. It’s about as beat up at this stage as Shane McGowan’s liver after a night on the town. It’s highly likely the SCU wasn’t within an asses’ roar of the sports capital tweets but the fact that it raised people’s suspicions proves that it’s still got a serious messaging problem of its own.
To date, the unit has shipped major criticism on a few fronts as opposition leaders nibble away at various aspects of the operation: there’s the €5m budget, manner of staff appointments, salaries, concerns around political impartiality and the big grey area concerning the demarcation of expenditure on government information and political propaganda.
Much of these are legitimate concerns and arise from bad political bungling from the Taoiseach on the matter.
But we know all that. It’s been well-documented. The question is, what has the SCU done? In actual fact, it’s beginning to address some important communications problems at the heart of government.
Addressing important communication problems
Already it has issued six tenders for digital media creative services, integrated digital campaigns, media buying and strategy, research, brand identity and design.
There’s a welcome audit underway into the €170m on government communications budget which spans over 600 staff, various external contracts, 200 individual State entities, and over 450 websites.
A new ‘Government of Ireland’ logo has appeared recently, streamlining the identities of individual Departments and State agencies, for a more simplified approach to certain campaigns. A new single web portal in the New Year will centralise the high volume of ongoing campaigns within Departments and agencies, similar to what already exists in the US and UK.
There have also been cross-Departmental public awareness campaigns on the Rugby World Cup bid, Budget 2018 and Back To School. Others are planned for the 10-year Capital Plan and the National Children’s Hospital.
Another wasteful quango?
So far, so what, says you. But to accept that the SCU is just another wasteful quango staffed by political appointees is a lazy view which is not grounded in fact. Yes, it should be probed, prodded and investigated until its sides are sore – that is political accountability after all. And yes we need to see the fruits of its work beyond a few logos and videos of Paschal running to the printers on Budget Day.
So there’s worthwhile work underway, sure. But the problem now is that the media dynamic is such that the unit has become the symbol of the Leo’s excessive emphasis on spin. The bottom line is it’s a small unit with a big budget. This makes it an easy target for a blood-thirsty opposition.
Was it a good idea? Absolutely. Has it been a harmless endeavour? Hardly. Does it deserve a bit of breathing room before we judge it? Definitely.
There’s another bit of #homework for the Taoiseach to get stuck into.
Amy Rose Harte is a public relations consultant who specialises in corporate communications and media training.