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John Bishop: Communications Line 16 September 2008

John Bishop's Communications Line - 16 September 2008

Issue Number 69 of 16 September

It’s all about persuasion: getting the media to run your story (if you are a PR person); getting people to believe your story (if you are Winston Peters); getting people to remove a story (if you are Pearl Going fighting a blogger); or getting people to turn against the other guy (if you are running for President of the United States.) Getting good service in Australia (and the perfect job) also feature along with a collection of “Manglish” examples and some strange folk stories. Read on.

How to influence journos

The continuing tensions between PR people and journalists were aired again at the annual Conferenz conference on media relations currently on in Wellington.

PR doesn’t set our agenda, the National Business Review’s Editor in Chief Nevil Gibson declared bluntly, and “we have a rule in the office, PR people who sell us a pup are banned. They don’t get a second chance.”

He lamented the absence of mature professionals in the PR profession and its increasing dependency on young(er) people. “I get a lot of annoying calls from PR people who don’t know who I am or what I do. I seldom hear from the senior consultants, but when I do it’s because they have something real to offer.”

But he also noted that younger people were better educated and more demanding. “They are doing things more quickly, more innovatively. They are testing boundaries and cutting corners.”

Broadcaster and columnist Bill Ralston spelled out what he was looking for in covering a story on radio or in print.

“I want conflict not just balance. I want to personalise or humanise the story, not just to report the facts. I want an angle that is different from what other media have got.”

He warned against management talk, like….”moving forward, I see a green playing field where we can exploit new synergies and optimize the bottom line.”

PR people need to be the translators. “It’s easy to get trapped into corporate babble. PR people in organisations can easily become “true believers” in what their own organisations say, and if that happens, “they are useless to journalists.”

Having fewer specialists in reporting teams meant that a lot of knowledge about a sector was being lost, but “if you map it out for the (junior) journalist, you’ll be surprised how much of it they’ll run.”

Nevil Gibson said that talking to news editors (or chief reporters) wasn’t always the best strategy for selling a story or seeking coverage. “You need to persuade a journalist to hear your pitch first, and you can do that by email or with a phone call to confirm interest.

“Don’t offer a “print exclusive”. Too often, particularly for a weekly paper like ours, that means in reality, the dregs after everyone else has had a go. But if you are offering a feature then make sure you have a fresh angle and fresh material.”

Oh Winston

Has there been a “devastating development” in lawyer Brian Henry’s evidence to the Privileges Committee hearing at Parliament on Winston Peters today? Apparently not. The story changes again, and there's some fresh evidence about the timing of telephone calls, but Henry still maintains that Peters had no knowledge of Owen Glenn's donation until Henry told him about it in July this year. Then Peters lives Saved by the new test Helen Clark has come up with to keep her troublesome partner both in the tent, but at a fair distance. Still suspended by not sacked.

Complete the sentence, the trouble with Winston Peters is….Lots of people have different answers. I’m going to leave his conduct aside and offer just one thought. For the sake of clarity, the sanity of future generations, and the welfare of the planet, I want to know what he is guilty of. I don’t assume guilt – although after the earlier Privileges Committee hearings the parliamentary commentariat had him sacked before the end of last week. It didn’t happen.

The committee has still to bring down a verdict, but even after Henry’s evidence today, what will that verdict be worth? It will reflect the political composition of the committee (and cynically Labour’s need to keep his body warm till after the election at least). Will we get the results of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry or the police inquiry before the election? Perhaps, but if there are charges laid, we won’t have had the trial(s) by 8 November. So how will we know his “guilt”?

John Key’s disowned him, and Helen Clark has suspended him, but so far he’s not even been properly convicted in the court of public opinion – unless you take the TV One poll as conclusive. 78% of voters said Peters had not been open and honest about funding, and 58% said that Helen Clark had been too soft with him. A question about whether the public thought he should now leave politics might have been more revealing.

I am not holding a brief for him, but I do observe that at a burial, it is normal for there to be a deceased person. To get rid of him (as some want) it is necessary to show simply and compellingly in terms that ordinary people can understand that he is “guilty” of some offence – criminal or otherwise. That offence has to be sufficiently big and sufficiently grave to rule him out of contention for votes, trust or membership of Cabinet. His opponents haven’t quite achieved that yet.

Responding on the Internet

Media law specialist Stephen Price raises an interesting question in a recent posting. As we all access websites through an ISP, one of his students argued: “if ISPs are sending us material that is defamatory, or in contempt of court, or breaches confidentiality or privacy or a suppression order… aren’t they liable for it?” Under current New Zealand law Price thinks that could well be the case.
“If the Solicitor-General writes to all the New Zealand ISPs and says: “X blog contains material that is prejudicial to upcoming trial Y. You are not hosting X blog, but you are allowing your users to access it when they type in X blog’s URL. If you continue to allow such access, you may be prosecuted for contempt of court”. I can’t see that that the ISP has any choice but to block the material. China manages it, so it must be technically possible.”
Blogger David Farrar takes a different view and cites the example of Pearl Going, a sometime model and would be Auckland socialite, who was upset about web postings questioning her background (There is a whole saga about this if you are interested – click below). She requested the removal of some material, which was declined. She then got a lawyer who repeated the request and when that was also declined, the lawyer wrote to the ISP hosting the site, and the ISP pulled the material. However, within hours the material complained about was up on a new site, And the matter gained considerably more prominence than it had as just a few posts on a site not much accessed. What this proves, says Farrar, is that attacking posts on legal grounds or putting the heavy hand on the ISP is not the way to go. “The Pearl Going case is a great example of what not to do,” he said. “Comment and respond and do so openly, not anonymously. That’s a much better approach.”

Good news – not

The United States is mired in a "once-in-a century" financial crisis which is now more than likely to spark a recession, former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan said on TV in the US, Levene Breaking News reports. “The talismanic ex-central banker said that the crisis was the worst he had seen in his career, still had a long way to go and would continue to affect home prices in the United States.”

Wall Street dropped 5% overnight, the biggest one day fall since the 1987 crash, and the NZX is 2.5% off this morning. So how does this play out politically? Does it help Labour – determined government handles crisis in best interests of New Zealanders? Or does it reinforce a sense of insecurity, and if so who does that help? Or is it all so international that if there are no financial consequences locally (banks or insurance companies don’t fail) then perhaps it’s all irrelevant anyway.

Right in despair.

The serious right is deeply disappointed about the current government and has a long list of complaints some of which have been aired more or less publicly in recent weeks. This is from former Treasury Secretary (and ACT Party candidate) Graham Scott’s speech to the AGM of the Institute of Economic Research last month.

“Leftists generally and the present government begin with a preference for state action over the market and a rejection of the economic method and its archetypal solutions. This ideology also emerges in demonising some forms of policy change so that they are off limits and adult conversation about them is impossible – toll roads and privatisation or even nationalisation – where is the debate on that?

“(There are) unsubstantiated and endless criticisms of the entire program of earlier privatisations – according to this urban myth all assets privatised were sold too cheaply even though tough competitive processes were used to maximise prices. But it is OK to buy back railway lines and tired rolling stock at a price that sent the parent company’s share price up 5%.

“And it has emerged in the diminished position of the Treasury and transfer of some of its functions to organisations that are less concerned with economic analysis and more in tune with the central planning and coordination methods that have replaced it.

“As a consequence of these ideological preferences the economic paradigm has given ground to a paradigm of central political control in which ministers take hands-on charge of areas of state activities that oversee aspects of the private sector or of state sector service delivery. They act as discretionary managers in effect and establish subordinate organisations to do activities called planning and coordination in a whole of government framework as a kind of secretariat to the minister.” There’s more at

Professor John Gibson who won the award for NZIER economist of the year is profiled at

If they don’t like what the Labour government has done, (and they don’t) this crowd isn’t exactly leaping about in the rafters giggling at the prospect of a Key led National government. Why? They just don’t have the confidence that Key has any intention of making the kinds of dramatic reforms which they believe are necessary. If the right is pessimistic about substantial reform (and they are) then the idea of a secret agenda – promoted by people like Labour propagandist Chris Trotter – takes a bit of a knock. I suppose that National could have a secret agenda about things other than wholesale economic reform of the Douglas/Richardson kind, but it’s hard to see what that might be.

Oh you are so rude

Australians aren’t well known for their politeness or general subtlety and I can certainly testify to that after a recent visit. I ordered two coffees at the café at Cairns airport. While I was waiting a woman wearing airport identification stepped up and spoke to the girl making my coffees asking for a latté when she “had a moment, no rush, just when you can.” My server broke off making my coffees and made the latté. I asked the server whether the woman owned the coffee bar. No. But she did work at the airport. Did that give her special privileges? I inquired. No, but “she was in a hurry”.

At the hotel there was the usual buffet breakfast layout. Fruits and cereals were in big bowls and then the various hot items in the lift the lid steel containers, and then the toaster machine and the breads. Juices were on a separate table off to the side. So where was the tea and coffee? I asked a passing wait person. It’s self service, she said. Yes, but where is the machine? “Around the corner, she said (It was out of sight). It’s not obvious I said. I told you when you came in, she said. (She hadn’t.) “Perhaps you weren’t listening”, she added.

Perfect Job?

How would you like to work only thirty minutes a day, no more than three days in a row and for no more than 180 minutes (three hours) in any given seven day period?

If that appeals, I have the job for you. Mind you there are just a few minor drawbacks. The job is in Australia. You have to like meeting people and for them to put their hands under your bottom. On the other hand all you have to do is sit still. (Ok, that is a serious problem for Gen Y.) You don’t have to say anything and it’s probably better if you don’t (Ok, ok, another serious problem for Gen Y).

Another drawback is that you have to eat gum leafs – which are not particularly nutritious and are, in fact, somewhat toxic. On the other hand there are twenty three different varieties and most of them are available where you will be living. If you were thinking fashion model, talk show host on TV, or intelligent media commentator, forget it. The job’s in Australia, remember.

In fact, you are a koala. Apparently appearing for more than 30 minutes a day is thought to stressful for the animal, and in Queensland that’s banned under state law. Mind you any time allocation at all is generous. In some states of Australia, photo sessions with people holding koalas are banned altogether.

I met one of these koalas last week. His name is Cobber and he lives in an animal zoo (renamed by the environmental spin doctors as a wild life habitat) in North Queensland.

The giggly Japanese office ladies and the elderly Taiwanese tourists were just delighted to pay $15 to have their photos taken holding Cobber, who obligingly sat still throughout the entire experience. Put back in his cage, he clung to the same branch of the tree as he had been before his photographic experience, the same dumb mute expression on his face.

I could tell from his demeanour that he was just the happiest a koala could be – his lifestyle and work habits are government protected and what better life could there be for a smelly, stinky, fur ball with no talent, no aspirations, no social skills, or any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

Dear old Duncan, his keeper, frankly confesses that nice and all as koalas are, you don’t bond with them. They don’t know one trainer from another. And everyday is pretty much the same experience. Cobber was born in captivity and has never known the real outdoors.

He also said something else that was interesting. Tourists – whether local or international – expect to see koalas in game parks and animal zoos. “You couldn’t have one in Australia, without koalas. No one would come.”

I left the so called wildlife habitat thinking that although Cobber and his pals are protected, they are also exploited. It may not harm them to be in captivity, but how is that better than being in their natural environment? Why can’t a koala be allowed to be a koala, and not a major lure for tourist dollars?

Attack ads

Widely used in the United States but prohibited in New Zealand (even before Electoral Finance Act), they are now increasingly coming into play as the campaign over there starts to get down and dirty. McCain is being criticised for his “Tiny” ad (
on Obama’s statements about Iran, although Obama never described the country as ‘tiny’, and also for linking Obama’s comment about lipstick on a pig to Sarah Palin, although (in context) Obama was talking about McCain’s claim to be an agent of change in Washington.

The first “attack ad” was ‘Daisy’ ( used by Lyndon Johnson to demonize his opponent Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election. He shows a child picking the petals off a flower while the Johnson’s voiceover intones about the future of mankind, and ends with a plea for voters to support Johnson over Goldwater who was depicted as an extremist who might use nuclear weapons. Ironically the ad aired only once, but was much discussed at the time (and since).
Perhaps the most (in)famous attack ad was ‘Willie Horton’ used by George Bush senior (( )when running against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1998 Presidential election. Horton was a convicted murderer who got an unsupervised weekend leave pass under a programme introduced in Massachusetts by a previous Republican Governor (but supported by Dukakis). On one weekend out, he kidnapped a young couple, stabbed the boy and raped the girl.
Republican strategist Lee Atwater discovered in focus groups that working class voters reacted negatively to Dukakis when told about Willie Horton and of Dukakis’s support for the programme. He persuaded Bush to “go negative” on Dukakis, and the ad was born. Dukakis didn’t respond initially, and when he did it was too late. He lost the election and the ad is widely seen as part of the reason.
The Wikipedia entry on attack ads says in part: “in the United States, researchers have consistently found that negative advertising has positive effects. According to Finkel and Greer (1998), negative advertising “is likely to stimulate voters by increasing the degree to which they care about the election’s outcome or by increasing ties to their party’s nominee.” This is an important feature of negative campaign advertising because it can solidify a candidate's support going into an election. The finding was repeated by Ken Goldstein and Paul Freedman (2002), who found that negative campaign ads raise interest in the election as well as raise the perceived importance of the election, which increases voter turnout. Negative advertising, then, can be very beneficial to a candidate during a campaign to not only win votes but also get out the vote
“Negative advertising can also be used to demobilize voters. Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar (1995) found that negative campaign advertising appeals only to partisans. They go on to say that negative advertising actually alienates independents and demobilizes them as voters, which causes elections to be fought among the partisan extremes. This makes sense since it removes the independents as a voting bloc to be concerned about and allows the candidates to stick to the party line.”

An after thought

When he was being assailed by the muckraking magazines of his day, President William Taft (1909-13) was urged to respond. He declined saying: “Oh, what's the use? Whatever I say or do is sure to be misconstrued or twisted around in such a manner that even I will not be able to recognize my own motives."


Our correspondents have been active with their contributions this issue.

Two members of the "Typo Eradication Advancement League" pleaded guilty to defacing a historic sign at the Grand Canyon, The Arizona Republic says. (Judge bans 'grammar vigilantes' from national parks
"Grammar vigilante" Jeff Deck wrote in a blog about how he corrected some errors on the sign that Mary Colter placed at Desert View Watchtower in 1932.
"I know today was supposed to be my day off from typo-hunting, but if I may be permitted to quote that most revered of android law enforcers, Inspector Gadget, 'Always on duty!' I can't shut it off," he wrote, adding: "Will we never be free from the shackles of apostrophic misunderstanding, even in a place surrounded by natural beauty?"
The judge ordered Deck and Benjamin Herson to stay out of national parklands for 12 months. They were also sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay more than $3,000 to repair the sign.

A café in the wellington suburb of Kilbirnie offers a “Bacon open club samwhich” Apart from the spelling, how can it be a club if it is open, or vice versa for that matter?

Incidentally at this place one can also get “bacon and eggs with tea, toast or coke for $7.50.” A quick snort anyone?

Aging grey haired dud in a soft top MX5 sports car. The number plate says TRYING, and underneath there are the words ‘to be cool.’ Having the top down might help.

“Your boss just delivered the speech you wrote. Now how do you repurpose it for other media?” This from Ragan Online.

How about the headline in the Waikato Times? Teen Gives Up Suicide Bombing. Oh, how many times has he done it?

Complete Tosh

“Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim, or handle, of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. ‘Wet your whistle’ is the phrase inspired by this practice.

In English pubs ale is ordered by pints and quarts…So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them ‘Mind your pints and quarts and settle down. It’s where we get the phrase’ mind your ps and qs’.”

True stories? Actually no. Neither story is substantiated. No example of a cup with a whistle in it has ever been found. Whistle commonly meant throat, and ale wasn’t sold in quarts. But the stories are in common circulation on the internet.

“That form of digitally enhanced folk etymology is called netymology”, according to Gary Martin of PhraseFinder. Another site dealing with the same issue recalls the Italian phrase….se non è vero, è bene trovatto ("ïf it's not true, it's well invented").


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