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Communications Line Issue Number 64 of 30 May 2008

Communications Line

By John Bishop
Issue Number 64 of 30 May 2008

Criminal investigations going wrong, politicians making blunders and plenty of bad language in this issue. Oh did anyone mention a budget: tax cuts seem to be overwhelmed by other events. And there’s some thoughts on the PR benefits of natural disasters too, and some wonderful examples of management jargon.

Two out of five ain’t bad

Five murder trials, three acquittals and the justice system is falling apart, according to the current affairs shows like Close Up last night. If the crown can’t prove its case, then perhaps, just perhaps people ought not to go to jail because it suits the public mood to have closure or “justice” in shocking cases.

Are the police getting it wrong, Close Up asked in its intro? Defence lawyer, Greg King, Craig Nicholas, the brother of the dead farmer, Jack Nicholas, with lawyer Jonathan Krebs playing the apparently independent expert were all there. Stating their positions does not amount to an investigation about whether current police methods of detective work and inquiry are flawed leading to the guilty going free. The programme over promised and undelivered.

The claims from defence counsel that police practice too often focuses too early on just one suspect, and the associated claim that the detective branch has been run down, and lacks experience and resources might have some substance: likewise the idea of an independent crown prosecution service. How that would be an improvement over the current system of private firms holding a crown warrant in each urban centre, backed by the Crown Law Office isn’t clear, but at least it’s a positive suggestion.

What is definitely not a positive suggestion is the idea that defendants should be obliged to testify or have negative connotations read into that, and the associated idea that all those who might “know something” about a crime should be “compelled” to co-operate with the police inquiry.

What is going on here?

What does ‘compelled’ mean? That they’ll be charged if they don’t co-operate? That’ll encourage them to tell the truth for sure. What about some name and shame tactics? It’s be so easy for some authority figure, like a top cop, to talk menacingly on television about how “certain parties”weren’t co-operating and about how they soon be facing some retribution if they didn’t rethink their stand. The media would lap it up. They’d even compete to have the cop on the show doing the heavy act. It would feed righteous public anger when horrible crimes had been committed.

Perhaps a little physical stimulus could be applied – like at Guantanamo Bay – it’s all in the cause of justice of course. It’s a shocking crime and they “know” something. Surely that’s ok, isn’t it? Well it isn’t with me. No one can condone the death of the Kahui twins, but if the police (and the crown prosecutor) choose to focus on the father and get the mother to testify against him, they know the risks. One of those is that the jury might not believe her story or like her very much. That’s what happened. It’s not a cause for panic, however unwelcome the idea that no one will be accountable for the twins’ deaths.

So who do those calling for justice now want to be charged? Someone walking past the house at the time, just to satisfy the public’s demand for justice? Is there an element of vengeance and blood lust there as well? The media need not, and in my view, should not, pander to this by playing on our emotions.

Whatever happens in the case (and I suspect that there will be a review that concludes no one further can be charged) and whatever the degree of public disappointment as a result, that is no basis to do away our long established rights to a presumption of innocence, to say nothing in our own defence without prejudice, and to a ban on self incrimination.

A final point: In the three acquittals, the defence counsel have criticised the quality of the police investigation. Isn’t that what someone called Clint Rickards also did? In our rush to judgement on him, did anyone take his complaint seriously?

Compo for Fiscal Drag

Finance Minister Dr Michael Cullen says his tax cut package does more than just compensate for fiscal drag – the gradual movement of taxpayers into higher tax brackets as their wages rise over time.

He told a Wellington Chamber of Commerce audience the day after the budget that wage earners on $30 000 a year were $20 a week better off than would have been if he had simply moved the tax threshold to compensate for wage movement. Taxpayers on $50 000 a year were getting an extra $10 a week on this basis, but for those earning $80 000 “the end result was the same.

In effect, by focusing on those earning between $30 000 and $70 000 Dr Cullen has gratified Labour’s core supporters. Indeed he referred to “school teachers and nurses who have won big pay increases moving to $70 000 and even $80 000”, and thus into the top 39c tax bracket.

IRD data previously published in Communications Line and in the NBR shows that about 300 000 taxpayers had moved in to the over $60 000 tax bracket since 2001, and Dr Cullen’s budget takes about the same number out again by moving the threshold to $70 000 and then to $80 000.

In previous elections Labour’s strategy has been to maintain its vote around the 40% mark by catering to a coalition of students, pensioners, Maori and Pacific Islanders, beneficiaries and women. It’s been enough to get it elected.

The tax changes – whatever their economic impact and value to those who receive them – are a necessary first step to shore up that coalition and get them to turn out on voting day in 2008. The tax changes aren’t enough alone, but with some stumbles from National and some vote splitting to keep the minor parties in Parliament, getting back to 40% (or a bit more) gives Labour a good shot at being first to have a crack at forming a government again.

If what we say is true?

Do words and statements carry only their literal meaning or is there something more given by context and attitudes. We have had two instances recently where context and attitude have made all the difference.

One was the comments of Phil Goff that there was a possibility that Labour would lose the election and that if that happened and if Helen Clark were to step aside, he would be interested in the leader’s job. Literally all those statements are accurate but it is the context that makes a statement of the obvious into a story – beleaguered party behind in the polls, questionable judgment about timing by Goff. Was it all deliberate, or was it just a man being honest, or was it a gaffe blown up by rapacious sensationalising media? Take your pick.

My point is that if Labour were leading, if it were after an election not immediately before one, if Helen had indicated she might step down, Goff’s statements would have been regarded differently –and rightly so. In short, context and timing make a difference. (Guyon Espiner explained this well on TV One last week in his 'to camera' intro to the story).” Politics is about saying on message and speculating about defeat is a no no.”

The second instance is the publication of the statistics on the social and economic contribution of Pacific islanders in New Zealand. The data paints a grim picture: Pacific Islanders are over represented in crime, mental health, unemployment statistics and have lower than average incomes, poorer health and a variety of other familiar measures. Whatever one might think about the causes of this, the data published in Dr Clydesdale’s study were all official statistics and well known to researchers, policy makers and politicians. His conclusions that Pacific Islanders were a net drain on the economy and did not contribute to economic growth are debatable.

However saying loudly what is already known doesn’t make one popular, and there was a fair bit of “shock, horror” partly about the figures themselves, and about his audacity in making them public. Apparently it is better to ignore them, or to attack the messenger. The attitude that as a society we should not know, recognise, confront, address and remedy the woeful position portrayed in the official statistics serves to hide the truth. So Dr Clydesdale and his findings become the large elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about.

Disaster handling reflects in PR

Compare the reactions of the two countries that have suffered disasters recently. We all know about Burma or Myanmar – won’t let aid in, or not much anyway. Won’t let western aid workers in – well not many anyway, and wants aid distributed by its own people – although it may now accept other Asians.

Go back a month or so. Who then was the international bad boy – at least as far as western media were concerned? China without a doubt. Olympics coming up and the torch relay gets disrupted and celebs and politicians are lining up to condemn its handling of human rights and to stand in solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet. Calls for boycotts and other actions were being issued regularly.

Then along comes the disaster in the Irrawaddy delta and millions are exposed. The world reacts in horror at the scale of the disaster, and then at the regime’s seeming indifference to the plight of its people.

Then China has its own earthquake and before you can say piece to camera in the midst of destruction, the disaster zone is crawling with western reporters, the aid is flowing, the People’s Liberation Army is doing good work, there are the usual run of dramatic survival stories (seven days in the rubble and still alive) and so on.

So who’s the international pariah now. It was China and when Burma volunteered to take over, China was only too happy to let them. In PR never rule out the effect of luck, chance and happenstance. This time China got a lucky break and exploited it well. Handily the earthquake also took the row over our free trade agreement away from the human rights issue.

Google beats knowing

I learned something important from the outcome of that small quiz question I asked in the last issue. The answer was Barack Obama and the USA and almost all those who responded had it right. Some just replied like that. Others gave chapter and verse – announcing his candidacy for President on 10 February 2007 in Springfield Illinois. These people had simply cut and pasted the quotation into Google and recycled the whole answer back to me. Nothing wrong with that. My point is that, these days, you don’t have to know stuff, just where to look it up. From that perspective Google is unbeatable, but what would happen to those who depend on it when they can’t access it for some reason. People don’t know any more; they just know where to find what they need to know. Does this threaten the value of knowledge for its own sake?

Obama wins publicity war

If publicity is the oxygen of politics then Barack Obama is winning hands down, according to the latest edition of the LBN Mediatracker published this week.
Obama appeared in 62% of the news stories about the presidential campaign in April – 48% as the principal news maker and 14% as a significant presence.

Hillary Clinton was in 43% of the stories (34% as the principal and (% as a significant presence. In contrast John McCain was in 41% of the stories – 33% and 8%) while George Bush – who has no significant role in the campaign – is in just three percent. No one other than Bill Clinton (at 1%) got above one percent. Levine Breaking News 28 May

McCain gets help

McCain's polling numbers are strikingly at odds with those of his party and his president, the Washington Post reported yesterday. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll voters said, by 53 percent to 32 percent, that the Democratic Party is better positioned than the Republicans to deal with the country's main problems. But asked whom they favored more for the presidency, Democratic front-runner Barack Obama or McCain, Obama had a substantially smaller edge, 51 to 44 percent.

Extravagance is perceived

I am not going to defend extravagance in the public sector as currently displayed in the row over where Housing Corporation managers went on retreat. But, I do offer three observations. In the private sector this would not be an issue. Secondly staff do deserve to be treated well and taken seriously (although that doesn’t necessarily lead to Tongariro Lodge.) Gathering the team together and going off site is not a radical practice any more; it’s mainstream. If you were in charge a national organisation with branches around the country (like the Housing Corporation, Farmers, the ANZ- National Bank or Work & Income) and wanted to hold a national conference, you’d probably be looking at a venue somewhere between Palmerston North and Taupo. With about two thirds of your people in the North Island, you’d fly in the people from the South Island and the far north and get as many as possible to drive to keep costs down. That’s how Christine Rankin and her lot ended up at Wairakei - although the chartered plane was a bit much.

Finally cost effectiveness or the benefits to the organisation or the working of the team aren’t the issue: it is always one of the perception of extravagance. The culture says ‘you, the public servant, can’t have a good time at my expense. You don’t have to be super efficient and your agency doesn’t have to be particularly effective, but you can’t enjoy yourself or look like you are wasting money.” It’s not a sin to be slow, lazy, and deliver poor service. It is a sin to be extravagant, treat yourself better than I treat myself, or to be seen as such. It’s not logical, but it is real.

Jargon is the enemy

There’s been a lively discussion in the MyRagan blog recently about business jargon. It started with “the biggest problem with jargon,” says Dunsavage, a communications manager for the Information & Media segment of McGraw-Hill Cos., “is that its users often don’t recognize it as such.” But communicators sure do! They piled on Dunsavage’s post, in which he tossed out a few jargon juggernauts he’d seen lately, including SPOC (“single point of contact”) and “How about CPOV?” chimed in a communication exec from a Big Four accounting firm. She translated the impenetrable initialism as “client’s point of view.”

Then there was “decisioning,” “provisioning” and “incentivizing”. “My government is starting to talk about financial requests and disbursements as ‘the ask’ and ‘the spend.’ Ick!” one communicator screeched.

Some JRTs - jargon-reduction techniques - were suggested.

• Show subject matter experts how dumb they sound. Government communicator Alicia Gregory tells that she talks management out of using what she calls “garbled-d-gook” by simply reading the prose out loud to the author. “I make it sound a bit funny, so they realize how absurd it really reads to the average employee.”

• Show them the beauty of jargon-free prose. Staples Business Depot internal communication manager Don Lariviere tries to get good prose by telling contributors to write the way they talk: “You’d never tell your kids that ‘at the current time we aren’t experiencing any precipitation.’” When he gets jargon offered up: “I just rewrite it and give it back to them so they see the improvement.” (Dunsavage agrees. Rewriting subject matter experts’prose works for him: “They tend to recognize clarity when it’s shown to them; they’re just not very good at producing it.”)

• Feed ’em rationales through a fire hose. A communications manager at a Big Four accounting firm rattles off reasons she gives for editing jargon out of prose: The audience is broad and won’t know the terms. Skimmers trip over words they don’t understand, and stop reading. If the reader is using a PDA, short sentences are more effective (What’s shorter, “out-of-the-box,” or “creative”?) Gen Y readers want their information quick and dirty—not slow and windy.

• Above all, don’t be arrogant. Despite the glee Dunsavage and his readers took in sending up all this jargon, he believes the key to separating subject matter experts from their jargon is humility: “I’m afraid that sometimes in our lust for clarity we forget that [subject matter experts] are no more versed in the rules of our language than we are in theirs. This can make us arrogant—and there is no better way to kill a collaborative relationship than through arrogance. Make sure that the work you’re doing is going to make them look smart.”

Another couple of examples from the USA….“We no longer look for solutions to problems. We "go for the solve."

And my personal favourite from this exchange…“My teenage daughter came up with a good one the other day: "Our cat poops very creatively - outside the box."…which got the response… “So, that would be "stinking outside the box?"

Published Articles

New Zealand’s system of economic regulation came under attack at a conference in Wellington last week


And an Australia economist (that’s two strikes in one go) told a cautionary tale about how regulations are made. See

Two brave men

Two apostles of the apostrophe make it their crusade to rid the world of bad signs. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune found two guys, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson who have spend months traveling around the USA “in search of awkward grammar construction. They have ferreted out bad subject-verb agreements, and they have faced stone-faced opposition everywhere. They have shone a light on typos in public places, and they have traveled by a GPS-guided '97 Nissan Sentra, sleeping on the couches of college friends and sticking around just long enough to do right by the English language. Then it's on the road again, off to a new town with new typos. They fight a losing battle, an unyielding tide of misplaced apostrophes and poor spelling. But still, they fight. Why, you ask. Because, they say. Because, they must. Their story is at,0,701362.story?page=1 They are TEAL—the Typo Eradication Advancement League—and they are between jobs."

The final word

The final word is from comedian Eddie Griffin: "Barack Obama is about to get the Democratic nomination. It'll be the first time in history that a black man beat a white woman and didn't go to jail for it".


John Bishop is a commentator, professional speaker, communications consultant, writer and trainer who publishes a free electronic newsletter on media, marketing and management matters. This can be found at Feedback to

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