Sun | Dec 16, 2018

Panic and heart troubles

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2016 | 12:00 AM

I've been thinking about something that I myself am terrible at: communication in times of crisis. I've had cause to note since the calling of the election that best practices in political communication are quite regularly being violated. At one level, it's bound to happen. It's politics, so the pressure is on, and the world is an untidy and messy place full of jagged edges and people angling for you to screw up.

So even the very best political communicators can only do a reasonable job sometimes, and will likely fail sometimes, perhaps even often. Consider Bill Clinton, widely felt to be one of the greatest communicators in recent times. After having been renowned as a friend of the African-American community during his tenure as president, a few remarks that were considered racially tinged got him into serious hot water when he was campaigning for his wife against Barack Obama in South Carolina. The merest slip, and BAM!, a lifetime of courting a constituency was called into question.

Anyway, one of the key instructions in the highly charged world of political communication is to never say, even in the negative, what your opponents are saying about you. And the textbook example of that is President Richard Nixon's denial, when he said, "I am not a crook!"

Conventional wisdom is that most voters heard this statement of disavowal and concluded: "Wow! That guy is definitely a crook!" You see, politicians have to be very careful, even about how they deny something. It sipple out deh!




As an aside, this reminds me of George Carlin's famous assessment, and here I paraphrase, of why people liked Bill Clinton in the first place. Carlin theorised that most politicians come along and say, "Hey, I'm an honest guy," and voters conclude: "He's full of **it." However, Clinton, Carlin said, came along and said, "I'm Bill Clinton and I'm full of **it", to which voters responded: "Finally, an honest guy!"

Anyway, the Nixonian paradox came immediately to mind when I read the following headline in The Gleaner: 'Let not your heart be troubled - Holness reassures Labourites concerned by poll'.

Below the headline came the explanation that "Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader Andrew Holness turned to scripture yesterday as he sought to calm nervous party supporters hours before Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller announced February 25 as the date for the general election."

The story continued, that "With the latest RJR-TVJ Don Anderson opinion poll showing the JLP trailing the governing People's National Party (PNP) by four percentage points, Holness told Labourites: 'Let not your heart be troubled.'"

Now in terms of the capacity of polls to induce heartburn, Don Anderson would be the master. He may have acted as 'The Master' in another way as well, insofar as he seems to have been one who touched the prime minister and prodded her into dissolving Parliament.

But the last election was instructive and is fresh on the minds of everyone. Polls were flying everywhere, and many were of dubious quality. In fact, there seemed to be an unspoken embargo on saying that the PNP might actually win the election, at least among the commentariat. So it was a strange time.

However, flying in the face of the received wisdom, there was Don Anderson. And lo and behold, received wisdom was soundly and roundly trounced.




Daryl Vaz approached the same poll results with a more nuanced interpretation. Quite rightly, I think, he pointed out that there are large numbers of "undecided" and that there is opportunity in the numbers for the Labour Party: it may be down, but it's by no means out.

Great points. Fine analysis. But then Nixon's ghost reared up: "I don't want anybody start to panic about any polls," Vaz declared.

Don't think about pink elephants! There you go. In the same way, dropping a word like 'panic' can only have the effect of causing people to, well, get anxious and behave frantically.

I realise that anyone who has to deal with a situation like this is in a terrible bind. And don't for a moment think I'm saying I could do better. I certainly doubt that I could. But this talk of troubled hearts and panicked souls can only have one outcome. And there are, I believe, better ways of offering hope to supporters and well-wishers than the Nixonian option.

There's no question that giving a prime minister the option of when to call an election confers an enormous advantage to the incumbent. It was an advantage Mr Holness had, and squandered, four years ago. Now the shoe is on a nicer foot.

Still, I really wonder if it isn't time to look at civilising ourselves just that tiny bit more by agreeing on a fixed date. As much as inducing heartburn and panic in one's opponents must give pleasure, there are other interests that require observance.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to