How we really rate leaders

21:52, May 17 2014
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Prime Minister John Key and Labour Leader David Cunliffe.

Will the real David Cunliffe please stand up?

That's the message from experts who claim the Labour leader is failing to connect with the voting public because he's not being true to himself.

It's a sentiment reflected strongly in the latest political poll in which people were asked to play a word association game with Cunliffe and Prime Minister John Key.

Asked to sum up the leaders in one word, people opted for "good" when describing Key, but words included confidence, arrogance, charismatic, leader and a suite of words lumped together as "profanity".

For Cunliffe, words like untrustworthy, arrogant and shifty were more likely to be used along with trying, promising and inexperienced.

However, the poll showed visibility is an issue for Cunliffe, with 20 per cent saying they thought "nothing" when Cunliffe's name came up; compared with 3 per cent for Key.


While Key got 43 per cent positive comments, 30 per cent negative and 27 per cent neutral or nothing, Cunliffe got about 6 per cent positive, 25 per cent negative and a whopping 69 per cent neutral or nothing. The results reinforce the impression that Cunliffe is still struggling to connect with voters.

The latest political poll had Cunliffe languishing on 13.4 per cent support as preferred prime minister, compared with 48.6 per cent for Key.

Former TVNZ political commentator turned media trainer Bill Ralston said Cunliffe came across like he "doesn't know himself".

"He always appears to be acting. You know, ‘I'm going to be angry now, I'm going to be funny now, I'm going to be serious'. I don't know what or who the real David Cunliffe is but we haven't seen him yet. It's that inauthenticity that's the issue. He just is not pitching himself as a normal person."

Ralston, who helped train Key, said the Prime Minister and New Zealand First's Winston Peters were leaders who had "clearly identified characteristics and personalities - you can almost guess what they are going to say or do next whereas Cuniffe, there's something that just doesn't ring true".

Cunliffe, who at times proved he had the ability to connect, was a thoughtful man who was likely to be over-analysing problems, he said. "He shouldn't try to be anything else other than himself."

Media trainer Brian Edwards, who has worked with Cunliffe, said the Labour leader was coming across poorly "which is curious because in the past he's come across very well indeed. He doesn't look relaxed, he doesn't look spontaneous, he looks like he is reciting extended sound bites that he has been given by advisers."

This was likely down to poor ratings and a failure to gain traction with the public which affected an MP's confidence and tended to make people over-correct. It seemed this had forced Cunliffe to over-prepare and use scripted responses at a time when it was better to wing it. "You can have this problem of too many voices. You're given all this advice and you end up with scrambled brains."

Media trainer Allison Webber worked for Helen Clark when she took over as the Labour leader and faced a torrid introduction. But Clark was savvy and organised and backed herself to overcome the negativity and Webber said Cunliffe needed to do the same.

"It did start to come right for her once she got more into the leadership position and was able to play her own game but I remember back then it was very demoralising and you just had to staunch it up and keep going really, keep smiling and connect with the public as much as possible."

Cunliffe needed to cut down on the amount of advice he was getting and rely on a few trusted advisers, she said.

Sunday Star Times