When a new leader takes office, there is always the desire to make a mark and change things for the professed good. At its extreme, we witness wholesale change with the associated promotions and demotions that can spark a generational shift, ushering in new voices and ideas and creating an entirely new political agenda. Equally, and as we witnessed in June of this year, political reality can often make distinguishing the old (and sometimes unpopular) from the new a constant challenge. Ireland’s new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has, however, demonstrated an ability to change the narrative by effectively identifying and seizing positive media opportunities.
With global economic and political uncertainty only increasing, the importance of Ireland’s international relations is more pressing than ever. As one of the new wave of young leaders who have recently taken office, Varadkar’s appointment and image places Ireland, at least aesthetically, amongst the vanguard of fresh, forward-thinking Western countries.
At home, the new Government’s branding programme has been lively. Novelty sock photocalls, Phoenix Park jogs with world leaders and references to ‘Love Actually’ has gotten the Taoiseach trending – and not only in Ireland. This serves two distinct purposes, firmly setting the new leader apart from the previous regime, and; vitally for his party – making politics accessible and relevant to a new generation (showcased directly in his new weekly video message or the recent announcement that an official Taoiseach Instagram account is on the way).
Politics is said to be about perception, and perception has a very distinct effect on communications. The 2016 Fine Gael general election campaign centred on the slogan “Keep the Recovery Going”, a message which clearly did not resonate with a large portion of the electorate, despite vetting by focus groups and senior party officials. The contrast between this and the way Varadkar is received by the public is stark. The Taoiseach’s greatest strength is in his distinct personality and authenticity. The public likes him because he “tells it like it is” – in the era of political ‘post-truth’ and “fake news”. Varadkar goes to U2 concerts, participates in triathlons, and replies to tweets from J1 students in America. He has an ability to communicate in memorable ways that resonate, already coining his ambition for Ireland to be “an island at the centre of the world” and a “Republic of opportunity” for “people who get up early in the morning”.
The Taoiseach’s priorities during his first 100 days, due to conclude on the 22 September, provide an interesting insight into the mind of the man that is Leo Varadkar. The need for strategic communications to be at the heart of government is firmly taking hold in Merrion Street. The establishment of the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) is an interesting throwback to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s infamous Strategy Unit.
Opposition figures, including Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin have expressed concern that the new SCU is a thinly veiled electioneering operation, designed to promote Fine Gael in advance of the next election. This entity does not replace any of the existing department media operations, it stands independent and in complement to their work, with the clever remit of communicating big picture projects and initiatives, outside of the day to day demands of media. Shrewdly, John Concannon has been appointed to lead the unit, having earned his stripes as the Marketing Director for Fáilte Ireland during The Gathering, Wild Atlantic Way and Discover Ireland Programmes.
Whilst we await substantive announcements in key policy areas, foreign affairs and Brexit have dominated the Taoiseach’s first 100 days, and there is no indication this will change anytime soon. The Taoiseach earned commendation for his commentary on marriage equality in Northern Ireland, and in outlining a firmer position from the Irish Government on the border with Northern Ireland. However, static polling numbers indicate the return of the Dáil will be significant in realising (or not) the impact of the new Taoiseach’s honeymoon period.
What we do know is the Taoiseach has taken the summer recess to prepare his own agenda in the context of turbulent political waters ahead at home and abroad. What role the SCU will play in charting the way forward remains to be seen.