Gillard's toxic carbon message

Trying to talk to everyone at once over the carbon price has put the government offside and with the word ‘carbon’ now invoking a negative response, there’s much to do to convince the public of its merits.

The Conversation

The federal government is once again hitting difficulties in communicating its carbon pricing proposal, with polling finding Australians don’t like the word ‘carbon’. The government is reconsidering its approach, but could take heart from the way they’ve talked to small businesses about the tax. This communication effort is a model of modern marketing.

The Gillard Government got off to a bad start communicating the carbon tax proposal and its consequent legislation. This is because their plan reflected an old-school attitude to macromarketing and public relations.

No one is listening

The integrated marketing strategy – advertise first, follow up with mediated information – failed to ignite public acceptance. It tried to talk to everyone at once, rather than understanding there is significant fragmentation among groups who had or were looking to have involvement in the issue.

Its pitch to the general public as a “tax on the top 500 companies” did not resonate as a strategy. The government did not provide details or name the companies. Nor did it take advantage of any popular impression that these companies may be responsible for the economy’s poor performance.

This failed approach means very few people are paying attention to what the government is saying. Those who have are mostly against it, and are creating a lot of noise in opposition to the tax.

But in a move that will go a long way towards reversing the poor image and identity of the carbon tax, the government is investing $30 million in communicating innovation and energy efficiency to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and community organisations; two sectors placed in immediate danger from July 1.

The outcome will be a better public understanding of energy innovation. Pitching to SMEs and community groups is clever because they have closer links with the public than do corporations.

It’s hard to talk about innovation

Public policy innovations such as the carbon tax struggle to become widespread. They are not eagerly applauded and adopted. This is because communicating innovation is no easy task, a fact governments often fail to grasp. They cannot understand why good ideas are not being picked up or accepted in the wider public sphere.

The present government has got some good policy ideas – ideas that in a macromarketing sense have the goals of societal good and environmental innovation.

In this it is on the right track with its energy efficiency information grants program. This program is a Department of Climate Change innovation pitched at industry associations and not-for-profits. It’s an effort to build the relationships needed to secure the future of the carbon tax.

The program is designed firstly to help SMEs and community groups be innovative about energy use and energy efficiency. But its subtler strategy is to work with these sectors to help them communicate, by extension, to their own stakeholders the innovation models that they put in place.

Thus, for a relatively small investment, the program reaches a widespread number of additional stakeholders not caught in the original net.

The information grants program stakeholders are small to medium enterprises and community groups. Because these groups are focused on their businesses and not on ways to identify, manage and reduce energy costs, they are ripe for more information on how to easily get on top of energy use.

SMEs are often time-poor with limited finances and have to focus on core business activities. Consequently they may be unaware of innovations in energy. Similarly community service organisations are limited in their capacity to investigate and invest in innovation.

SMEs make up the bulk of Australian businesses. Those in the sectors of manufacturing, agriculture and mining are going to be hit hard by the carbon tax. One way to balance the tax impost is to give SMEs the communication skills they need to demonstrate and market their innovative capabilities. The information grants program will help to achieve this.

In the late 1980s, for example, a number of Victorian SME manufacturers communicated their innovations in robotics and plasma-cutting through broad-based relationship-building. This approach worked so well that they won awards and important international contracts for their work.

In the intervening 25 years there has been a generational change in manufacturing and an incremental ebbing of communication of innovation. The inability to communicate innovation and value particularly afflicts the agricultural and mining sectors. The government’s plan will be an important step in improving this situation.

More information, not less

The federal government’s communication problem, however, runs too deep to be resolved completely by throwing $30 million at SMEs.

Statements about good policy or policy innovations, no matter how often they are repeated, are insufficient in themselves to create widespread adoption. When the prime minister says the government is getting on with the job rather than talking about it, it’s detrimental to the future of policy innovations. If there is one thing the public needs it is more, rather than less, information about what its government is up to.

The present polarisation of Australian society means the government must come up with diffuse and innovative strategies to inform and explain its policies. An old-school macromarketing strategy – talking to everyone at once – will not work. There are as many opinions, attitudes and vested interests as there are varieties of eucalypt.

Richard Stanton is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication at the University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation – theconversation.edu.au  Reproduced with permission.

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