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Communications Line Issue 2 December 2008

Communications Line Issue Number 73 of 2 December 2008

What’s being making news? The economy, dramatic world events and some media spin all feature in this, the second to last edition of Communications Line in this form. There's plenty on PR, including a little ripper of an interview from the USA. The real role of Agenda is explored and how the Airbus crash was spun in the media is analysed. Oh, and my cat is dying.

Government about to begin

There’s probably going to be another political poll soon, and it’s probably going to show National further out in front, but to me the remarkable thing is how little is happening politically since the election, the formation of the government and the change in the Labour leadership.

Sure, there was the usual ridiculous picture from the APEC meeting with the leaders in this year’s silly costume, and there’s been some discussion about spending and the economy in advance of this week’s expected interest rate cut and National’s rescue package. But what’s been making news? Mumbai, Perpignan, Bangkok, the rugby, the league and the cricket, and the Nia Glassie case.

The new Ministers are saying little as they read into their portfolios and Labour is keeping a zip lip too sensing that they need to rebuild before attacking. We have yet to see the new government under fire or engaged in any real political fights. So any judgment on their performance has to be highly conditional; doing well so far but untested.

That may all change next week when the new Parliament opens. We’ll have a couple of weeks of clash and bash before Christmas as National bangs through some legislation under urgency and the MPs will be up and off to the beach for a break.

So before that happens, here’s three serious questions? What will the economy do? That’s anyone’s guess really, but there will be more money printed. Can Labour get back in 2011? Yes, but not necessarily. And finally, what about the Maori Party? Their people might just be winners under National.

What’s happening with the economy?

Can I give you a big “don’t know”? I know that I am not alone in this despite reassuring noises from political leaders around the world as they ready and roll out their various stimulus packages.

The packages have both economic and political content. The second is easier to understand. It’s about being seen to take decisive, collective action which the leaders believe will restore confidence and show them in a positive light. (It’s already done wonders for Gordon Brown in the UK whose poll ratings have risen massively since the crisis began). But the economics are seriously questionable. The western world is already heading into the second round of stimulation with larger packages being promised.

The problem is that the packages rolled out so far haven’t worked. Confidence is still low, Credit is stalled and sharemarkets are yo-yoing, but generally heading south. The answer the politicians have come up with is to make the stimulus packages bigger. But what happens if that doesn’t work either. Make them bigger still?

Remember when government talks about stimulus packages, that really means running budget deficits. That is when governments spend more than they get in. In essence they are printing money and that’s inflationary. Whatever value deficit spending might have in keeping the economy ticking over, inflation robs all savers and printing money without the goods behind the money makes every dollar worth just a bit less.

That’s stealing value from those who have money to redistribute to those whom we think will spend it in ways that will keep us all in work. The stealing isn’t about charity, or social justice or socialism. It’s about keeping people in jobs so that we can get through the crisis.

The other problem with deficit financing is that the effects are invisible to most people. The dollar buys a bit less, but if you are in work, at least you’ve got a job. So a bit of corrosion of value is deemed acceptable. But the effect is the same as a tax increase. Moreover the government is taking some value away from you without explicitly asking your permission and without any real controls on how much it takes, for how long it takes it, or on what it does with the money. At least a legislated tax increase is honest.

Is there a way back for Labour?

This piece was first published in the DominionPost of 19 November. Figures used here are now the final results.

For Labour to win, three things need to happen. One is that National has to fail. Naturally John Key and his new Ministers will resist that to their utmost. But bad luck and adverse international events have thrown governments off course before, despite the talent and determination that the Ministers might bring to the Cabinet table.

A deepening international financial crisis, a massive jump in unemployment and some shocking signs of social unrest and upheaval would not make it easy for the Key government – if those things happen, if they handle them badly, and if Labour can make it “National’s fault.”

Secondly the Greens have to do better. The Greens cannot avoid some responsibility for the failure of the centre left bloc. In 1975 election the Green’s antecedent, the Values party got 5.3% of the votes. In 2008, the Greens after twelve years in Parliament have got this up to 6.7%. Their best ever share of the party vote was 7% in 1990 and in 2002.

They are further away from being in government or having a substantial influence on government than they were when they had three MPs elected as part of Jim Anderton’s Alliance in 1996.

They failed with genetic engineering in 2002, and with climate change in 2008, to make green issues central to the thinking and voting behaviour of New Zealanders. Only 3.5% of voters think the Greens are the party closest to what they feel are the important issues, according to research undertaken by Victoria University. National got 43% and Labour 20%. ACT was the choice of 6%. The green cause may be worthy but the current leaders have failed as advocates.

If they are to be part of a centre left bloc in the next government, the Greens have to increase their vote without cannibalising it from Labour. Not an easy task, but it can be done.

Ask ACT how. It starts with by winning an electorate seat (which the Greens had, but lost) and continues by building their own brand as compatible with, but also distinct from, Labour’s brand.

Thirdly Labour has to reconnect with New Zealanders. Labour is not seen as standing for the values of the majority of New Zealanders any more. The story is told in the solid working class seats. In Waimakariri Labour’s majority fell from 5600 in 2005 to 390, and in Heretaunga from 8277 to 753.

Labour hold 18 seats in metropolitan areas compared to National’s 13, but National has ten seats in provincial cities compared to just one for Labour (Palmerston North) and has 18 provincial/rural seats (Labour none). .

National won the party vote in several traditional Labour seats. It took the party vote in Phil Goff’s seat of Mount Roskill, in Maungakiekie, in David Cunliffe’s New Lynn, Chris Carter’s Te Atatu, in Palmerston North, Port Hills, Wellington Central, and Waimakariri.

In choosing Goff and King as their leaders, Labour has chosen two strong and experienced political characters who look like mainstream Kiwis. They will do the necessary things; reshape the front bench, bring new talent forward, unify the party, and focus it on combating the government in Parliament. That’s already begun. The real task will be to rattle the voters’ belief that National not Labour better reflects their values and aspirations.

Goff and King are not temporary leaders. An anxious and ambitious caucus will be behind them until the next election assuming no huge stumbles, reasonable performance by them, and polls which show Labour ‘in reach’ of being the government. Losing the 2011 election would seal their fate. They’ll have just one shot at becoming Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

The new generation of leaders – David Cunliffe, Shane Jones, Maryan Street, Charles Chauvel, Darren Hughes and others - will feel themselves ready by then. So Goff and King have an opportunity, but it is an opportunity that will last only the term of this Parliament.

Will Maori be winners?

The deal between National and the Maori Party did more than give National a partner in the centre to balance ACT on the right, or to give them an alternative majority on some issues.

I’d argue that the Maori Party’s desire for more economic and social control of their destiny is consistent and compatible with the National Party’s desire ultimately to get rid of the Maori seats. How?

National might just believe that the best way to get rid of the Maori seats is to end the poverty and cycle of deprivation that makes those seats the political protection necessary for those who live in them. Remove the need and the case for the seats is weakened. The newly prosperous may well move their votes to general seats.

Many within Maoridom and in the Maori Party believe that Labour has perpetuated dependency among Maori. (And if not Labour specifically, then the welfare system run by successive governments.)

While there’s plenty of welfare measures, there’s much less emphasis on making Maori families prosperous, or on making iwi and hapu economically sound and independent, self governing and self managing entities.

It is also deeply ironic that Maori did much better with treaty claims under a National government than under Labour. That party also legislated away any chance Maori might have had to pursue claims to parts of the foreshore and seabed through the courts. (That Labour panicked amid fears of a white backlash is the accompanying subtext to that view.)

Even the most strident advocates of the view that Labour and the welfare system have failed Maori don’t say nothing has been done. Treaty settlements, the fisheries settlement and Maori self development have all been important, but across the system, the argument runs, the scales lean towards handouts that maintain (and therefore perpetuate) low living standards and not towards self reliance and dignity for individuals, whanau and iwi.

One way of resolving a number of issues would be to make Maori more prosperous and to do it as fast as possible. National has a professed desire to lift the living standards of Maori, a goal it shares with the Maori party. Leaving aside any other considerations, what would be the political impact of a rising Maori middle class, which shared the aspirations and values of pakeha New Zealanders towards education, hard work, and achievement?

What if those people (and there are many already) acquired materialistic values and wanted more prosperity? They sound more like potential National voters than Labour stalwarts. And if they came to see Labour as the party of poverty (which they no longer have) and the Maori Party as the party of the “tribal ghetto”, they might come across to the general roll. If that happened in sufficient numbers, then the number of Maori seats would progressively fall.

While a majority of the Maori Party’s voters currently give their party vote to Labour, a successful partnership with John Key’s National government might start to shake a few voters loose. Poor people may be more inclined to vote Labour, particularly if that is a habit acquired from family, tribe or workplace. If National’s professed desire to lift the living standards of Maori - a goal it shares with the Maori Party -.translates into real improvements then a shakeup of voting habits is certainly possible. Even a few thousand party votes going National’s way would surely be useful to them in 2011.

PR; it’s a woman’s job

The average PR practitioner is still a female graduate in her mid 30’s working inhouse in either Auckland or Wellington and earning about $90 000 a year the biennial PRINZ survey has found.

Vitality Research surveyed 734 practitioners (including over 200 non members) for the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ). The survey shows that the trends identified in the previous survey in 2006 have continued and strengthened. The profession is becoming younger; more female dominated, and is increasingly a first career choice.

The survey finds 74% of practitioners are female and 56% are under the age of 40. Only 14% of those under 30 years of age are male compared with 53% of those aged 50 or more. 71% of the PR and communications professionals are based in Auckland and Wellington – very similar to the 2006 result - and over half have a specific PR or communications qualification.

Two thirds of the profession works in house – a third of that group in central government, 23% in local government and 26% in the private sector (including SOEs). Only 27% have been journalists at some stage confirming a long term trend that PR is no longer a second career for aging male journalists. It is now a first career for aspiring educated females.

The survey finds that among new recruits in the last five years, marketers and students were now more common than journalists. While 43% of the “older hands” in the profession came from a journalism background, only 15% of the new recruits did so.

Those working in consultancies or in house in the private sector earn the most, although their packages have increased by less than those in the public sector and in academia in the past two years. Two percent of the profession earns more than $250 000 with median earnings being in the $75-$85k band. Average earnings are $93 400, an increase of 6.9% in two years.

For about two thirds of the profession media relations and corporate communications are their main activities (both slightly down on 2006). Publicity and issues management were the most important or sole role for over half the profession and reputation management (measured for the first time) was scored as most important or sole by 59%.

Marketing, consumer and brand PR and online PR were cited by nearly four out of ten in the profession. The more senior members of the profession were much more likely to be involved in corporate communications, reputation management and issues management than less experienced practitioners.

The survey confirmed the picture of the industry as a large number of small teams. There was an average of 3.9 persons in a consultancy and 4.2 for in house teams – both down a bit on 2006 figures. 78% of consultancies reported earnings of under $500 000 in 2007, and in the 2008 survey there are more firms earning less than $100,000 than in 2006.

Agenda: a hidden role

There’s been some comment and speculation about why the Sunday morning all politics current affairs show Agenda has been axed and what, if anything, TVNZ will do to replace it. The show’s producer Richard Harman is quoted as saying that ratings dropped when it was moved from Saturday morning to Sunday morning.

And there’s been speculation that if National fast tracked changes to broadcasting funding that could save the show. It’s hard to see how that would work if TVNZ doesn’t want the current show and proceeds to produce its own show. Whatever the outcome, the important role Agenda played in our politics and media ought not to be forgotten.

It was a show that took politics and politicians seriously and used serious minded people as its guests, interviewers and commentators. This encouraged politicians to appear and to speak frankly and honestly. It was in sharp and deliberate contrast to the battle of the sound bites approach to current affairs which politicians were forced to engage in on shows like Close Up and Campbell Live.

It was also neutral ground, a safe house in the sometimes hostile war between politicians and the media. Both politicians and TVNZ used it as a way of getting material into the public arena. The politicians used it to say things in the course of a longer interview that might have sounded crass or belligerent in a sound bite or a media statement. In short they fed material out on a Sunday morning which was picked up by TVNZ and aired on the Sunday night news. How often these appearances and statements were “negotiated” and how often stories or angles were presented by agreement is not clear, but it certainly happened.

It was a helpful, semi official arrangement which suited everyone. The political junkies watched interesting material on a Sunday morning. The politicians could engage in some framing of issues and some agenda setting (no pun intended) and TVNZ got good political stories for a Sunday night bulletin which is often challenged to come up with local stories of substance.

TVNZ’s political people also looked like they were right on the ball following up on things said that very morning. TV3 had no comparable programme to generate and release political material so here was source of competitive advantage for the channel’s news operation.

And then it all ends. It’s not obvious why. TVNZ spokesperson Megan Richards has been quoted on the question of a TVNZ produced show as saying "We see some considerable advantage in a closer relationship with our existing news and current affairs team.” With One’s political editor Guyon Espiner often appearing on Agenda and then presenting stories in the Sunday night news based around material from the show that morning, how closer a relationship could there be?

The Erebus connection

The coincidence of dates of the Air New Zealand crash of the Airbus A320 at Perpignan with the anniversary of the DC10 Crash at Mount Erebus in 1979 gave the Sunday StarTimes an excuse to run a piece of Air New Zealand spin from the company’s former media relations manager John Freer last Sunday.

I don’t know who solicited whom in this relationship, but as puffery goes it was hard to beat. Headlined “Echoes of Erebus: Why Air New Zealand” has changed, it contained this remarkable claim: “Air New Zealand has matured from dealing with a number of incidents, and chief executive Rob Fyfe and his crisis team have been exceptional in handling the incident.”

Mr Freer’s assertion that “as information filtered out, staff would have continued to deliver what is a world-class product - in a quiet and controlled manner. As and when required, work colleagues would have taken time out to reflect on information which came to hand” is delivered without any evidence other than confident assertion. Take the phrases “would have continued”, and “would have taken”. Freer wants us to believe these statements, but can’t offer any actual evidence or authority that the staff did behave in this way. Being phrased in the conditional tense is a giveaway.

However John Freer is right to say that “Air New Zealand in 1979 was a company where senior management lived in terror of public and media scrutiny about their business.” And with the Erebus incident there was much to be fearful about.

What John forgot to mention in his Erebus 1979/Perpignan 2008 comparison was the frenzied activity on Erebus night as Air New Zealand executives came to the realization that they had programmed their plane to fly into a mountain, and not down a wide open valley as the pilot supposed.

The morning after the crash a well spoken young man went around to Captain Collins' house to pick up the maps and documents Collins had used in his flight preparation. Those documents were never seen again, and the identity of the person who collected them was never established. It might have been the SIS or someone from the airline – although both denied it.

The importance of the documents is that they would have shown where Captain Collins thought he was going – which was down the sound. All Captain Collins had to do was to descend to a lower altitude to give the passengers a better view – as the company allowed, and even encouraged him, to do - and a crash was inevitable. This was because the aircraft’s computer programme had put the plane a couple of degrees off the track down the sound and had it flying towards the mountain. Not a problem at 23 000 feet, but disastrous at a much lower altitude. The evidence of Collin’s route planning would probably have cleared him of blame and would have focused attention on the company’s computer systems.

I don’t suggest anything improper went on at Perpignan, but to use an old and greater tragedy to puff up a company’s handling of the more recent and smaller tragedy strikes me as a cynical act verging on an obscene insult to the dead at Erebus.

Cancer gets most media coverage

The single disease to get the most media attention was cancer, accounting for 10.1% of all health coverage in the United States media this year, according to media expert and author Michael Levine.

"Much of this attention was driven by announcements of cancer in two public figures Elizabeth Edwards (wife of former Senator John Edwards) and Tony Snow (the former White House spokesman who died this year aged 53.) "This confirms the power of celebrities in obtaining media coverage noted Levine. (Source: Levine Breaking News 2 December)

New Zealand PRs know this to be true. In a 2006 survey I conducted there was a high level of agreement from PR people and journalists that having a celebrity do publicity stunts or appearances for your cause significantly increased the likelihood of media coverage. Sporting personalities worked best.

Answering media questions

And while we are on media relations and how to answer or not answer questions this is a little beauty. It’s a news report from St Louis in the USA about junketeering school officials cited in MyRagan. (There’s an advert first) Click here http://www.myfoxstl.com/myfox/pages/Home/Detail;jsessionid=8FA54A529BEDEFA97EDFE447F9098ED0?contentId=7886017&version=3&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=1.1.1&sflg=1

Is PR writing bad?

Mark Ragan writing in the 24 November issue of Ragan.com, the newsletter for communicators, asks why PR writing is so bad. “PR writing is so horribly consistent that agencies even have a template for it. It goes something like this:

“name of company, the leading solutions provider for the name of industry announces the appointment, purchase of, merger, etc of name of another company, the leading provider of name of product or service.

The template also offers a column of buzzwords for these college grads to use when pumping out press releases. You simply highlight the word with your cursor, hit "enter" and the word is inserted into various spots throughout the release. The column includes all of the old standbys, including our friends "Thought Leadership" (in all caps of course); "connectivity," "global," "forward thinking," "vision," "strategic," and "influencers."

He continues. “There is a reason for the template, of course. None of the kids hired by the agencies and billed out at $150 an hour have the slightest idea what they're writing about. They don't understand the product or the client. They have no background in the industry, and they never learned how to write in college. He cites this press release from Ruder Finn as an example of following the template.

CHICAGO, Jan. 7 /PRNewswire/ -- Ruder Finn, Inc., a leading independent full-service global communications agency, today announced that it has been appointed global PR agency for Alterian, plc—the leading global enterprise marketing platform provider.”

He has a point. One of the constant complaints that journalists, particularly chief reporters and editors, have about PR people in New Zealand is that so few of them understand newsrooms and journalism. That’s hardly surprising given that only 15% of new recruits into PR/Communications have a journalism background, compared with 43% of those in PR who are aged over 50. (Source 2008 PRINZ Survey).

In the PR profession the survey showed that only 27% have been journalists at some stage confirming a long term trend that PR is no longer a second career for aging male journalists. It is now a first career for aspiring educated females.

The death of a cat

The imminent but so far uncompleted death of our household moggy prompted some musing on life, death and pets. See http://wotzon.com/diary/JBishop

Not quite the last newsletter

Thank you to all those who responded to the news that Communications Line may not continue in its present form in 2009. There have been kind words of praise, thanks and some pleas not to do it. Fear not. My thoughts, views and perspectives will continue to be produced and shared with you but the vehicle and the manner will change. More details will be in a pre-Christmas issue.


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