French critics have been harsh for quite a long time now with the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. The former mayor of Nantes, chosen by François Hollande just after his election, has been portrayed as “lacking charisma and authority” over its own government; his communication strategy has also been depicted as “old-fashioned”. Some, inside the Socialist Party, has called for his replacement, even before the coming municipal and European elections.
But on November 19th, the PM created an opportunity to make himself indispensable again, and to showcase his role as the government’s head. While François Hollande was in Israel for a State visit and the social tensions were high in France, Jean-Marc Ayrault rolled a great communication plan; in a surprise interview with the daily Les Echos, he made a promise formulated by François Hollande during the presidential race: reshaping the whole fiscal system.
While the government had been reluctant to act on this matter, the PM explained with strong words that the whole fiscal French system ought to be redefined. This was a great communication plan for various reasons:
• The subject seemed as far from the government agenda as possible. This, coupled with the fact that nobody excepting the President and the Prime Minister knew about the initiative, granted a successful surprise effect;
• This contributed to reinforce the fact that Jean-Marc Ayrault was not on a short-term leash. As he said, such a reform would take “at least one year”; this was a good way to cut short the ambitions of his competitors and to reestablish himself in the long-term;
• Finally, this placed the PM, once again, on the first line of defense; as a protection for the President and as the main decision-maker, regarding a subject that was creating tensions inside the majority and in the public opinion. The renewed authority of the PM was also strengthened by the fact that the President was away when the Prime Minister launched this initiative – giving the impression of a well-oiled, efficient executive duo.
Commentators were unanimous in their praise of the PM’s initiative; in one week, he seemed to have reestablished himself, to have shut down the left-wing critics and to have put an additional burden on the opposition shoulders. Yet, now that the announcement is three weeks old, the positive comments seem to have faded. After the initial excitement, most of the analyses explained that the PM did not choose the right button to push. Promising such a massive reform was never a good way to appease spirits; more, a fiscal reform of this magnitude would need a strong political base and a proven authority, to resist the pressure from various lobbies. More than just a communication operation, this looks like a political play in itself, which brings up the limit of this announcement.
“Give me good politics, and I will give you a good communication”. The word of Jacques Pilhan, former spin-doctor of French Presidents François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, is proving itself true again and again. As good as a communication can be, it is nothing without the appropriated politics. The same thing goes for companies, federations, NGOs…
If communication is not driven by something concrete, then it loses sense and does not produce the expected results. In this case, it did give a few positive days for the Prime Minister to regroup. But it also increased the pressure and the scrutiny over the government, especially regarding the next step of this reform. By trying to revamp his communication, the PM was right. The error was to prioritize communication over concrete politics; politics should always come first, and communication should follow.
Communication should always be evidence-based; otherwise it just serves short-term interests. This is what we recommend to our clients – telling a strong, data-driven story will always be the most effective way to communicate.