A great blog and an accurate observation, and very interesting perspective!
After working as a policy advisor for several years, I agree that fear (creation and containment) is the best way to get people's attention, gain votes, seek funding and be seen to be doing something about an issue. What the issue is at any particular point in time; that is usually dictated by the media, who benefit most from fear because fear sells newspapers, which means they can charge more for advertising space.
If it bleeds, it leads.
Having said that, if the media latch onto an issue that has no real substance, most policy advisors know it's a storm in a tea cup and will ride it out using classic rhetoric and spin. If the issue is real, then that becomes a problem and the teacup becomes a hurricane that requires long term commitment and funding.
In the case of the Rhino campaign, trams and cars do crash but they are usually minor accidents, and pedestrians do get hit, but they also get hit by taxi's and cars a lot more often. And sometimes there are single events that one would assume might generate fear but don't because they don't get the coverage....
Case in point: Two years ago a woman was cycling through the centre of town when a bus knocked her over. The driver panicked, reversed and in the process a wheel ran over her head, squashing it and spreading her brains and blood everywhere. It was lunch hour and the bus was full of Japanese tourists. Hundreds of people, including all the passengers on the bus, saw it happen yet no public campaign came out of that incident or any major newspaper coverage.
Why? Bad PR for the city of Melbourne and no good for tourism? Sure, but why didn't the newspapers run with it? What did they have to lose? Surely that could create fear and sell papers, so why not run with it?
Answer: Flight Centre (the biggest travel agency in Australia and who profit significantly from package tour groups from Asia) is one of the newspaper's biggest clients for advertising, so a little sensitivity given it happened in front of Japanese tourists was in order.
To answer your question of unwinding a fear containment policy isn't easy, however I'll give it a shot...
In my experience the only reason any government would want to 'unwind' a fear containment policy, even when the threat isn't there anymore or people are immune to it, is if something else takes its place or the economy suffers so much that the policy can no longer be justified.
When the money runs out, that's when things get interesting because fear mongering by different government departments and interest groups goes into over drive. Everybody wants the same thing; to maintain their position or visibility on the political landscape.
That is why the Australian Crime Commission has decided to release the information on drugs, organised crime and football players. Football is almost a religion in Australia, so the revelations that there is a 'culture' of players associating with gangsters and using drugs, raping women etc, is something most Australian's won't accept or dismiss with a 'bad apple' mentality.
The ACC has used its revelations to squash the bad apple mindset and generate a form of fear as a means of increasing their visibility and importance in the lead up to the Federal election. A quote from our Prime Minister on the weekend about her being 'sickened' by the revelations, but 'not agreeing with the release of the report' is proof enough. She can't cut funds to the ACC now when they have information that threatens the very fabric of our sporting culture. In effect, the ACC has released its own 30 rhinos to guard itself against its political vulnerability.
How it will unfold is yet to be determined, however I would suggest either a few players will need to be named and become part of the collateral damage, or a compromise will be reached where players won't be public named and the clubs can deal with it themselves. That keeps everyone happy once the threat (cut backs to the ACC) is abated and another issue arises. I doubt the Herald Sun will run a prolonged campaign against the football culture because it is the football fan's paper. Leveraging their fear to sell papers can only last so long before they don't want to know about it anymore.
In summary, when cutbacks to sensitive areas are needed a good policy adviser should either look for a diversion or some way of spin doctoring the success of the initiative, influencing the perception that the policy is no longer required. In my experience a change in government is usually when this happens because it's far easier to blame a previous government and scrap a costly or problematic policy. For example, people in Melbourne still blame a government that was in office 20 years ago for major changes to our mental health system that resulted in many mentally ill people being shot by police. The following government had 10 years in office to address this problem but never did, despite having the funds and to do so, yet people still blame the government which created the flawed policy.
It is kind of similar to the Olympics notion that nobody remembers who came second.
In the case of the rhino campaign, it is clever in the sense that it gains attention and popularity, and therefore achieves the goal of being seen to do something, but whether or not it changes behaviour (reduces accidents) is irrelevant. I'm cynical but that's the reality. Perception and visibility are the most import factors in politics. Most 'new strategies' are hollow bullets, even those with resources attached. In this case, the Rhino campaign was a part of a diversion designed to take people's attention off the bigger issues with public transport, such as over crowding, old infrastructure and a flawed Myki Card ticketing system.
To sum it up, what is popular never works, and what works is never popular!!
Cheers - great article!
Posted: 2/13/2013 5:50:38 AM