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Cullen Address to Public Relations Annual Awards

Michael Cullen Address to Public Relations Annual Awards Breakfast Duxton Hotel, 170 Wakefield St, Wellington


I would like to begin by turning the theme of your conference, “Reputation is Everything”, from an assertion into a question. Is reputation indeed the most important thing? Does everything stand or fall on how high our stocks are with whatever public is most important to us?

We tend to respond very sharply to attacks on our reputation. While most of us have forgotten our Shakespeare entirely, in Parliament everyone can at least quote from memory Iago’s advice to Othello, in which he famously said:

“Good name in man and woman, …, Is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.”

This passage is regularly quoted in the House whenever a Member wants to add a certain gravitas to their defence against some accusation or other.

Perhaps what they do not realise is that Iago was one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. As a spin doctor he was spectacularly unsuccessful, judging by the fact that in convincing his client that his reputation was under threat he spurred Othello into a tragic murder/suicide and ended up stabbed to death himself.

The pursuit of a good reputation may be understandable; but it can cause us to forget what is truly important, whether in politics, business or personal life.

We should also bear in mind that public acclaim is a hard commodity to come by and a harder one to hold onto. What is more, politicians, public relations professionals and journalists, from whose ranks most PR executives are drawn, start at a distinct disadvantage. We jockey for position on the ‘public reputation’ league tables alongside used car salesmen and fundamentalist clergy.

If reputation is everything then we are all doomed, and we should leave the job of running the country and shaping public opinion to those professionals whose reputations are consistently high, such as fire-fighters, teachers and trauma specialists.

Anyone who goes into politics (or, for that matter, into PR) with the ambition of being universally liked, is in for a rude shock. About the best one can hope for is to be able to say, with George Bernard Shaw, “I have no enemies; it’s just that many of my friends can’t stand me.”

By itself, reputation does nothing. It has never built a hospital or a highway.

In the public sphere, whether we are marketing ideas or products, a reputation is always provisional. It engenders sufficient trust to provide us with an opportunity to demonstrate our worth, to confirm our reputation by good performance.

If we deliver the desired results, our reputation ought to thrive; and if we do not it ought to suffer. I say ought because I recognise that we no longer live in a world where facts and evidence and analysis always carry the day. Perhaps we never did.

This is something that I am acutely aware of as Finance Minister. One might assume that the merits of prudent fiscal management, running modest surpluses over the course of the business cycle, reducing public debt and setting aside funds to cover the future costs of an ageing population, would be obvious and compelling. Apparently not.

Were the budget solely a PR exercise, the government would be advised to abandon the fiscal prudence and fiscal sustainability that has given us in the last five years a remarkable period of economic growth) and revert to the populism of the Muldoon years. A tax cut here. A spend up there. All obscured by a cash-based accounting system that gave no accurate picture of the real value of future liabilities and current assets.

This is not sour grapes. Instead, what I am arguing against is the uncritical and even cynical acceptance of Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum: The medium is the message.

The medium is important. And as a result the public relations industry is important. Anyone with a message to convey needs to understand how best to convey it.

But the message relies for its credibility and effectiveness on its content, not its presentation. In government and, I should say, in opposition, what ought to concern politicians is how best to manage the economy, how to improve prospects for growth through better skills, better investment in technology and infrastructure, and better trade and investment links to the world beyond our borders.

What ought to concern us is not how to design feel-good tax cuts or how to outbid each other in spending promises, but how to achieve quality public spending on health leading to real gains in the health status of New Zealanders, or an education system that rewards providers for delivering well-rounded skilled graduates to our businesses and communities.

So what I would like to see is a shift towards more message and less medium. Conditions are surely propitious for such a shift. More New Zealanders are hooked up to broadband internet services, and we are becoming more confident in its use. The internet is starting to rewrite the rules of public debate, with the rise of ‘blogging’ and the proliferation of news sites with more in depth information. Increasingly we have a generation of young people who live and breathe communications technology that we who are slightly older still regard as alternative and a bit scary.

There are opportunities to be seized here, and my hope would be that what emerges is a more genuine marketplace of ideas. The model I believe we need to follow is that which by and large already exists in the world of independent business analysis. Within days of the release of a new prospectus or share offer, a wide range of analysis is normally available, most of it very rigorous.

Analysts stand or fall on the quality of their analysis, and there is little room in the market for simply sounding off one’s prejudices and unsupported opinions. (Would that this were true more generally of the business press.)

What I am arguing for here requires something of a gentlepersons’ agreement amongst those involved in public relations, media and politics. A good spinner can always be countered by a batsmen who is good at playing spin. The result may be absorbing viewing for some of the fans, but the reality is that public affairs is not a game.

New Zealanders are about to make a very important decision about the future direction of economic and social policy. We need to agree on the need to maintain a high standard of evidential support to the public debate around the issues, whether it is politicians engaging in that debate or interest groups who are represented by members of the PR industry.

It should not be possible, for example, to promise tax cuts and spending increases and stable debt, without being subject to immediate ridicule. Nor should it be possible to make statements designed to incite distrust of ethnic minorities without a public relations disaster ensuing.

When this government came to power in 1999, one of our goals was to restore the public trust in the political system which had been lost during the previous decades of broken promises. We did this through restricting our promises to things we knew we could deliver, and we did so.

We also attempted to develop very clear strategies relating to how an economy like ours can grow, strategies such as the Growth and Innovation framework and, more recently, our reforms of the tertiary education sector. One of the prompts for this was a desire to move beyond ad hoc decision making, and create a more rational basis for driving the detailed choices we make in industry policy, infrastructure, investment in science and technology and business taxation.

In essence, we are creating a culture of government in which the message matters more than the medium, in which strategic alignment and well-supported analysis carry more weight. That is a culture in which those working in public relations are rewarded for how well they present the facts, and particularly for making complex issues more accessible to decision makers and the public at large.

That is an important task, and one that should not be taken lightly. For better or worse, public relations is not just a business. It is a community of professionals which is influenced by and in turn influences the quality of our democracy and the strength of our civil society.

In this sense there is an element of public service good public relations work; one that is not incompatible with running a successful business and not incompatible with maintaining a good reputation.

Thank you.


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