By Steve Michelson and Andrew Stewart
It is hard to imagine a story other than the coronavirus capturing the attention of Australians but this week MPs, journalists, pundits and the Liberal Party leadership alike have been stirred into a frenzy following Malcolm Turnbull’s tell-all memoir ‘A Bigger Picture’.
By the time A Bigger Picture hit the shelves on Monday it had already generated significant coverage from its provocative snippets previewed by media outlets and its extraordinary leaking by a Morrison staffer.
Malcolm Turnbull’s autobiography covers his political life, time as Prime Minister and the spill that saw him removed from leadership across nearly 700 pages of unreserved and unapologetic reflections. The memoir has sparked heated discussion around the appropriateness of its content and the timing of its release with calls for Turnbull to be expelled from the Liberal Party.
A Bigger Picture provides a fascinating case study on the cornerstones of good communications, namely how to balance messages, context, timing and delivery. Here are the good, the bad and the lessons in balancing a message that can be taken from Turnbull’s autobiography:
Salacious gossip and shots fired from high-profile people will always be entertaining reading and is sure to attract the attention of media outlets and its readers.
A Bigger Picture, if nothing else, grabs our attention. It is filled with punchy ‘grabs’ that have secured its coverage in the top headlines for the past week. The grabs are effective because they are designed to be brief, catch the attention of the reader and be immediately understood. When compared with Kevin Rudd’s biography which currently stands at over 1300 pages across 2 volumes and some 2500 footnotes, Turnbull’s A Bigger Picture is a masterclass in how to write captivating lines that will wrest the attention of readers and the media.
A Bigger Picture takes aim at some of the biggest names across media and both sides of the Treasury benches including Rupert Murdoch, Alan Jones, Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Mathias Cormann, Bill Shorten and Clive Palmer in what Turnbull claims to be in the interest of writing history.
“There is not much point in writing a memoir if you cannot write it truthfully … it’s important that people know what happened.”
– Malcolm Turnbull, interview with Troy Bramston (The Australian)
While writing truthfully is important for a memoir, the message must be balanced to avoid the perception that the book only serves as a platform for a meticulous take-down of enemies with no proportional right of reply. Memoirs from ex-PMs are an important historical tool to analyse how politics and leadership has evolved over the years, but in not balancing its message A Bigger Picture runs the risk of the content being overshadowed by the controversy.
A quick survey of the headlines each morning this week returns almost exclusively COVID-19 content. The crisis and the country’s response has entirely consumed our attention and in this context it is difficult to communicate much else through mainstream news media.
In most cases, it is advisable to link communications to the current climate in an effort to piggyback on existing coverage but A Bigger Picture does a remarkable job of cutting through the COVID-19 media monopoly to provide Australians with something equally compelling to discuss. Unfortunately this discussion is consumed with the appropriateness of the book’s message and the attention it is drawing is largely negative.
A Bigger Picture states that the Morrison Government should not have won the 2019 election and questions the character of many key government Ministers. At a time when national unity is being called for across party lines, Turnbull’s memoir comes across as a divisive jab that sows the seeds of fracture in the government.
A smarter strategy would have been to review and potentially revise the messaging of the book in light of the political and social climate of today to arrive at a balanced critique with just enough punchy grabs to drive media attention and readership. This may have meant a delayed release date, but as Malcolm Turnbull will likely only get one memoir to be remembered by it may have been worth the wait.
In the fast-paced and transient world of politics it is always tricky to judge the right time to release a memoir. Howard and Rudd both released theirs around four years after leaving office with Gillard’s hitting shelves after a year and Abbott yet to put pen to paper. The timing is a balancing act between giving the public time to breathe and ensuring the characters and events described throughout are still relevant and remembered.
A Bigger Picture describes events and public figures that are still fresh in the mind of the Australian public and in doing so is instantly accessible to a wide audience. The proximity of the book’s release to the recent federal election is also strategic as it ensures Turnbull gets his say before the conversation moves on. As a shorter term PM, Turnbull does not have the long years of leadership to dissect like Howard does in Lazarus Rising, so writing a timely and explosive look at the turmoil that surrounded politics throughout his time in public life was a savvy decision.
Unfortunately in light of recent crisis and the no holds barred criticisms of former colleagues and political enemies in A Bigger Picture, it comes across as opportunistic, ill-timed and more than a little tone-deaf. A better approach for Turnbull would have been to reconsider the release date and revise the book’s messaging to provide a more balanced reflection of his time in public life.
The key takeaway from Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir is to always balance and tailor a message to consider the context it is being written in and the time at which it will be released.
Thinking of releasing an explosive memoir? Maybe run it by your communications advisor first…
Steve Michelson, Founder and Managing Director of Banksia Strategic Partners, is a former lawyer and strategic communications expert who has advised a range of corporate leaders, senior politicians and public servants on complex communications issues.
Andrew Stewart is an Associate at Banksia with a diverse background in communications, technology and data analysis.