Political speech: what credibility today and what role of communicators?

Political speech is undergoing a crisis of credibility, pushing communicators to review their role in the transmission of messages. Abstention, mistrust, indifference… Why does the dialogue between elected officials and citizens, between politicians and voters work badly? To provide answers to this question, APACOM, the association of communication professionals in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, invited elected officials, a journalist and a political scientist to debate on 22 November 2021 at La Grande Poste in Bordeaux. The objective: to go beyond the observation to bring out ways of rebuilding a more active relationship between rulers and governed.

The event brought together Laurie Bodescher, journalist for Sud-Ouest; Philippe Buisson, Mayor of Libourne and President of Cali; Nathalie Delattre, Senator of the Gironde, Vice-President of the Senate, Municipal Councillor of Bordeaux, former Mayor of Bordeaux Maritime district; and Jean-Daniel Lévy, Deputy Director of Harris Interactive France. Charles-Marie Boret, administrator of APACOM and communication expert, arbitrated this debate. He shares with BORDEAUX Business a summary of the event.

Observation on the perception of the mayor’s missions by citizens

Contrary to the difficulties of audibility of political speech at the national level, Philippe Buisson and Nathalie Delattre shared that, as local elected officials, they did not feel a problem of transmitting their word. On the contrary, they note the listening and the interest of the population for the municipal action, the local political discussion.

On the other hand, both point to a problem on the part of civic education on the areas of responsibility of the town hall. Thus, the mayor is expected on many subjects that go beyond his real missions. For example, Philippe Buisson explains that, in the news, there is a lot of talk about security. This responsibility falls within the sovereign functions of the State, but local policies are confronted by citizens on these subjects.

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On political communication itself, in public expression as mayor, they are little affected by issues of legitimacy. On the contrary, local politicians in particular use the right tools to make themselves heard. Magazine, digital, display… With the exception of young people, 18-30 year olds with whom it is traditionally difficult to establish dialogue. More than inappropriate codes used, the personal context of each one makes few feel concerned. Beginning of working life, population still mobile, students, not settled…

Added to this constant problem is the difficulty for citizens to identify the right interlocutors and the role of each. For good reason, the French administrative complexity, on the background of communes, intercommunalities, department, region, administrations, does not facilitate relations.

An interest in political speech thwarted by a hyper-communication society

According to political scientist Jean-Daniel Levy, elected officials and public speech maintain a certain distance from the citizen, but there remains in France a real interest in politics. As proof, he cites the TV audiences during the interventions of the President of the Republic, or the Facebook Live of the mayors during the pandemic.

For all the experts present, the fact that public speech is part of a hyper-communicative world, in a hyper-communication society, involving a lot of expression in various forms, makes it particularly difficult to succeed in bringing out a subject. Because of the saturation of the media space, political speech but also journalistic analysis have difficulty finding their way.

As Nathalie Delattre and Philippe Buisson point out, being elected is a function, not a profession. As such, he is not an expert. But we turn to him at any time and on any subject to ask him for an opinion. For public speech to be relevant, elected officials and communicators must therefore be able to distance themselves and take the time to respond correctly. A delicate issue in a society of immediacy.

At the same time, Philippe Buisson points to another perverse effect of the immediacy and saturation of the media space. He gives the example of the grievance books launched in 2019 before the health crisis. They had then made it possible to identify a huge mass of subjects, proposals, which have since not been exploited. Thus, in our information society, one news item chases the other. However, it is up to politics to keep his own thread despite the vagaries of the news. It is also the role of public communicators to hold a direction, to deepen things, to use materials.

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Giving a long-term context to political communication

For journalist Laury Bodescher, the fact that a political speech is an act of communication is not a problem in itself. It is not embarrassing that everything is organized as an act of communication, which goes beyond information. On the contrary, it is up to the journalist to decode this, analyze it and present it. In the same way, it is important for the citizen to go beyond what is simply said. Laurey Bodescher recalls here the different role of the media and communicators. Each has its own mission, which can be enriched by a fruitful relationship between communicators and journalists.

In addition, the work of journalists also makes it possible to resituate things, to place them in a context, a project. This is what Jean-Daniel Levy, Nathalie Delattre and Philippe Buisson are all about. They argue that, in order to give meaning to public speech, it is necessary to situate things in the long term. In the context of immediacy, saturation of the media space, permanent solicitation of elected officials, political speech must go beyond the mere reaction to a news item. For listeners to understand and adhere, elected officials, political and administrative decision-makers, must relocate actions in a longer narrative. From a political point of view, it is a question of placing small decisions in a horizon of political project or urban project.

This is for example the approach adopted in Bordeaux as part of the policy of revitalizing the city and rebuilding its image. A strategy to which Charles Marie Boret had then contributed.

Political communicator, giving meaning to the word to stay the course

Citizens’ expectations require politicians to react, to speak up, to say a lot and on many things. To place these interventions in a more global project, to give the meaning of this story, the communicators organize these speeches. This imperative therefore has concrete implications for the communicators who support public action.

Now they have to be less technical. They are no longer just able to multiply tools and supports. They strive to play a mediating role in decoding actions in a long-term sense.

Especially since the current recurring issues are long-term concerns of all generations. Climate change, purchasing power, health security… Thus, political communication should not simply be a communication of transmission of messages. It must be part of a global project.

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Slowness and proximity: difficult reading by citizens of political commitment

Nathalie Delattre also insists on the production process of public action. The realization of projects, regulations, procedures, deadlines in all areas make the achievement of each objective long and tedious. In this sense, administrative slowness is also a subject of public mistrust. For good reason, people see little of the fulfillment of the promise of elected officials and public actors. In this context, communication is not enough to occupy and arouse people’s interest.

At the same time, elected officials must strive to cultivate closeness. Nathalie Delattre and Philippe Buisson recall here the function of representing citizens and not as spokespersons for administrative services. They then focus on the subject of the accessibility of politics. In this regard, Charles-Marie Boret remembers a visit by the former mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume. During a seduction operation to attract students, he had then given his phone number to whoever wanted it to answer questions. An unlikely situation in France, where the politician keeps a certain distance from his constituents.

Far from being reduced to the telephone, there are now many other formats that make it possible to reconnect, to create proximity. Emails and live performances are great tools to improve accessibility and immediacy. During the lockdown, Philippe Buisson took hold of these tools himself. Its Facebook Live had gathered about 2000 inhabitants. A remarkable score on a city of 20,000 inhabitants.

On the other hand, behind the proximity, it is necessary that the elected representative and the public services strive to keep the promises that are made. Everyone testifies, however, that it is not easy, in the administrative functioning, to obtain the results in time and time. This requires a strong presence with local and national administrations to get things done. To succeed in embodying the promise and the narrative in something that the population can see.

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