Plays for the Prime Ministry: First TV debate – analysing how both participants sought to influence voters

What do politicians (and for that matter, businessmen and women) do in live debates? Do they run tactical Plays for the duration of the debate, or strategic Plays that underpin their political campaign or corporate strategy?

'Mr Rudd promises to introduce a bill to legalise same sex marriage'.    "Mr Abbott pledges to make a decision on the site of a second airport for Sydney".

In last night’s live debate between incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, both reverted to type, instinct, and as a result, ultimately caution.

 The viewer/reader analyses across the mainstream media provide snapshots of how consumers of the arguments felt after the event, yet they provide no special consensus. The ABC’s Twitter-based “tug-of-war” poll showed 73% to Rudd, 27% to Abbott. The Guardian’s Australian debate worm claimed a win for Rudd, as did Channel 9 and 10 viewers. Channel 7’s viewers showed a win for Abbott.  The mainstream journalists in the mean gave Abbott the result. Everyone claimed it was not the most vibrant of debates.

But how were the two participants themselves seeking to influence the voters? What Plays did they run against each other?

With the Playmaker Systems Standard Table of Influence we can analyse the Plays that were run by both either to project and promote their positions and policies, or to counter their opponent.

Sys 2.0 Playmaker Table

As regular readers of this blog will already know, The Playmaker System is the first taxonomy of the most basic stratagems observed in communication, social media, marketing, sales, politics and the military. At its centre is The Standard Table of Influence which identifies and organizes the irreducibly unique strategies of influence — Plays.

As you can see from the schematic above (or go online for an interactive version) each of the 24 named plays is assigned to one of three overarching classes (shown along The Table’s top row).

These are Assess, Condition and Engage.

Not surprisingly, the Assess class is least risky but least effective in the influence stakes, and the Engage class the most effective and the riskiest.

Across these three classes are a further seven sub-classes (shown in The Table’s second row as Test, Divert, Frame, Freeze, Press, Preempt and Provoke) each with their collection of individual, irreducible influence stratagems.

Think of The Standard Table of Influence as the periodic table for influence strategy.

And with it, organizations and politicians can plan influence campaigns and Play strategies, and we can also analyse Plays that have been run by two sides of a debate as external observers.

So: how did last night’s debate shape up?

Each ran the same number of Plays, 23, but more detailed analysis starts to show the differences.

Mr Rudd ran more Engage Plays, with a total of 12 against Abbott’s 6. These included BAITs (on electricity prices set by State-owned utilities and nurses’ future work conditions should the Coalition be elected, as examples) and TRUMPs (including his announcing of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage). In the Playmaker ontology, BAITs taunt and trap, TRUMPs usurp the opponent.

Mr Abbott ran his own series of Engage Plays too, with FIATs (declarations of policies) and CHALLENGEs (calling on Rudd to modify his position, and also to the nation, to change government). In the Playmaker ontology, FIATs are declarations of ideas, opinions or facts,  CHALLENGEs are exhortations to adopts or modify a position.

On face value, Rudd should have won the influence stakes last night: he ran more of the Engage class Plays.

But Abbott took more risks. Each of the Playmaker’s influence stratagems carry their own risk and reward. Predictably all in the Assess class (take a look at the far-left of the Standard Table above) have low or medium risk and low and medium rewards.

Track to the right along the Standard Table (no political inference implied here) towards the high-engagement influence stratagems, and the risk – and the rewards – increase.

And when the two catalogues of Plays are analysed, Mr Abbott ran Plays with a total risk of 43, and a total of rewards measure of 50.

Mr Rudd ran Plays with a total risk of 35 and rewards of 44.

The breakdown of Plays during the debate looks like this:


Pause  [DF]-Deflect  Label Recast [FI]-Filter  [DX]-Disco [MI]-Mirror  Fiat [CH]-Challenge [CW]-Crowd              [CT]-Callout  [PXY]-Proxy


Pause  [DF]-Deflect  Recast                           [MI]-Mirror              Fiat [CW]-Crowd              [TR]-Trump  Bait

Click here for a tabular summary of the Plays run by both men. 

So how do we roll-up these tactical Plays to a bigger picture? Is there a bigger picture?

Well, yes. The over-arching analysis shows that both men seek to RECAST the policies and results of the other to suit their individual political requirements, and at the root of this Play is the strategy of casting doubt.

But each ran five RECASTs, so these PLAYs effectively cancelled out.

What’s left is an influence strategy from Mr Abbott built on LABELs (turn back the boats, can you afford to risk another three years of Labor disarray), and one from Mr Rudd built on BAITs (will Mr Abbott show us his funding models, will Mr Abbott support gay marriage).

This is how the two players sought to influence those watching the debate, including commentators and journalists on line and in print. Biases aside, the general “market consensus” tallies with the Playmaker analysis: Abbott won, but there wasn’t much in it.

(Pictures:×349.jpg/ and×349.jpg, by Andrew Meares.)

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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