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Communications Line Issue No. 56 - 6 Dec 2007

Communications Line Issue Number 56 of 6 December 2007

By John Bishop

Real challenge at Wellington DHB

It’s been an extraordinary saga of events at the Capital and Coast District Health Board, and clearly the drama is not all over yet. Putting aside the immediate issues that have given rise to the barrage of negative and damaging publicity, how would one begin to rebuild? For a start, the board and management are not in control of their destiny. The Minister has still to decide what, if anything, he will do, and his options including sacking the board and putting in a commissioner. Assuming that the board continues to exist, then a comprehensive exercise in rebuilding trust and confidence between and among the board, the senior management, middle management, clinicians, nurses and other staff, and the main stakeholders would be my thought. That process will be difficult and probably painful. To put it in religious language (and with no disrespect to anyone’s beliefs) there will need to be a frank confession of sins, seeking of forgiveness, evidence of contrition, some acts of penance, and demonstrably better behaviour afterwards. Saying it is easy; doing it is much harder, but ask yourselves this: who is this about; it’s the patients – surely?

Weak, supine and risk averse

What did Trevor Mallard achieve by attacking Erin Leigh, the PR contactor who blew the whistle on Minister David Parker’s efforts to get a political supporter a contract job with the Ministry for the Environment?

Mallard said in Parliament that she had “repeated competency issues” although this has been rebutted by her colleagues and superiors and Hugh Logan, the head of the Ministry for the Environment has now apologised to her (although Mallard has not and says he will not). Mr Mallard got more negative publicity (like he needs that) and he failed to deflect the attacks on the Ministry. As for Erin Leigh she’s considering her options in the sure and certain knowledge that no manager in the public service will engage her again while this government is in power.

The no risk approach from our politically supine public service recalls some lines from the Robert de Niro gangster film Casino where the aged Mafia bosses back east discuss what to do now that the Feds are rounding up the gang in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

FORLANO He won't talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That's the way I see it.

BORELLI I agree. He's solid. A true Marine.

CAPELLI He's okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?

GAGGI Look... why take a chance? At least, that's the way I feel about it.

So the gang member called Stone is whacked, clipped, eliminated, wasted, and terminated. His life worries are over, because the old guys see no reason to take the risk that he might talk. In the public service context, what public service manager is going to take the risk of hiring a politically contentious person? There will be no rewards for that; only the prospect of pain and grief. Who needs that? At least, that’s the way the cautious public service manager feels about it.

Blind bad tactics

So how does a Minister get a person of his own political persuasion hired by a supposedly neutral public service with the power (but apparently not the guts) to say no to such a request. The answer is to use the “blind bat technique”. How it works is explained at

Mallard safe

Mallard is safe from being heaved out of Parliament even if he is convicted of assault. Most of the media is behaving as if the case isn’t even going to get to trial. Well maybe. But it is worth noting that S196 of the Crimes Act provides for a term of imprisonment of up to one year for conviction for assault. However the Electoral Act has a threshold of crimes punishable by imprisonment of two years or more before an MP ceases to be an MP. Conceivably an MP could represent her/his constituents from a prison cell.

PR A rich story source

I have long been interested in the relationship between PR and the news media and among the people who populate each of those worlds. Having worked both sides of the street I like to think that I can understand the frustrations and the satisfactions that the work in both areas can bring. However, as a citizen interested in the standard of public debate on matters of major social, political and economic moment, I frequently despair of the quality of the reporting that we have in NZ, although I do not think that the journalists alone are at fault. The media people complain that is hard to penetrate the phalanx of PR people whose job, the media claim, is to prevent the “truth” coming out and to obfuscate, delay, deter, and deflect the inquiring journalist. PR people “routinely lie”, don’t understand news values, and can’t get their bosses to talk in language ordinary people understand.

PR people have their own litany of complaints about journalists; they don’t understand complex issues, they call on deadline, they want a quote to confirm a preconceived approach to a story, and they “want us (the PR people) to do their research for them”. Both points of view have some validity.

On a recent visit to the NZPA newsroom I asked NZPA Editor Nick Brown about an estimate I’d seen that up to half the copy in a daily newspaper was PR generated. He said: “many stories on our wire have content from mixed sources - eg something from a PR statement, added comment over the phone and maybe some background from our library database. We certainly don't like solely relying on a supplied statement for the total content of any story. But if you count statements to the NZX, from police and sports' media liaison people, then your guesstimate of 50 percent PR-generated content may be about right.”

Rumour a political weapon

Rumours have become a major force in the Republican and Democratic primaries, largely because of the power of the internet to spread them quickly.

The rumours are often incorrect and even scurrilous, but that doesn’t stop their spread or limit their impact, causing the candidates’ teams to set up rapid reaction processes to counter them. For example, a rumour that Hillary Clinton was about to become the victim of a personal attack involving allegations about her private life made it into the Times of London.

In another instance, national columnist Bob Novak was about to report that a ranking Democrat had told him Clinton had serious dirt on rival Democratic Sen. Barack Obama but was sitting on it rather than using it to injure his campaign
A friendly reporter told the Clinton campaign that Novak's column would report the charge the following day. He did and when Obama issued a statement on “the thinly sourced item,” the Clinton team was ready with a heated response. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, says Clinton campaign officials are the fastest and fiercest at pushing back against media accounts that they regard as unfair or inaccurate.

"We live in a minute-to-minute media culture," according to Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson. “What may seem like a small story one day could snowball into a larger story the next day. Left unchecked, false stories can take on a life of their own."

For example, a claim that “nobody got left a tip” when Hillary ate a sandwich at a lunch counter in Toledo, Iowa, was picked up by National Public Radio. The Clinton campaign hastily fired off an e-mail to the network: "The campaign spent $157 and left a $100 tip at the Maid-Rite Restaurant. Wish you had checked in with us beforehand." Now that is a generous tip, but the point is the need to be all over everything all the time to prevent or squash damaging coverage.

Clinton is Satan

Don Imus, the US right wing shock jock sacked by CBS after he described the Rutgers women’s’ basketball team as "nappy-headed hos,” an extremely derogatory term invoking the language of slavery, is back on air, this time on the ABC network.

This is how the conservative newswire Newsmax reported it, “Don Imus returned to the radio with both barrels blasting on Monday, calling Vice President Dick Cheney a “war criminal” and reiterating his charge that Hillary Clinton is “Satan.” Referring to his disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team that got him pulled from the air nine months ago, a somewhat contrite Imus did say that he “will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me.” But he told listeners: “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal. Hillary Clinton is still Satan. And I’m going on the radio.”

Spanish surge

Step aside Moore and Taylor. Welcome Garcia and Rodriguez. Smith remains the most common surname in the United States, according to a new analysis from the Census Bureau, but for the first time, two Hispanic surnames - Garcia and Rodriguez - are among the top 10 most common in the nation, and Martinez nearly edged out Wilson for 10th place. The number of Hispanics living in the United States grew by 58 percent in the 1990s to nearly 13 percent of the total population Levine Breaking News

Wannabe popstars

For an hilarious send up of popstars and their pretentious lives check this out;

Talking about performance

The contenders for the All Blacks’ coaching job line up for interviews today. Personally I am so over it that I really don’t care any more and won’t re-engage with rugby until the game’s leaders can tempt me to believe that the game is about the spectators again. It may be a long wait.

However one subtle point of redefinition caught my attention. Apparently winning the World Cup wasn’t the only objective set for the coaches. Overall performance of the team will also now count. Of course, that is a rewrite of the performance standards after the event, and yes, it may favour the Henry gang, but will it be enough to save them, or will Robbie, the clean boy come through, or will…..tune in next week for another episode of how the rugby union evades real life.

A modest brag

A team of Victoria University students has won a prestigious debating tournament at the Cambridge Union in England, the first New Zealand team to do so. The Victoria University team comprising my son, Christopher and his debating partner, Sayeqa Islam, defeated universities such as Oxford, Yale, Harvard, and Trinity College Dublin on their way to the title. In the Grand Final in the famous Cambridge Union they opposed the global opening of borders to economic migrants and refugees. The team also competed in tournaments in Dublin and at the Oxford Union, finishing second in each case.

Each of the tournaments was conducted in British Parliamentary style, where four teams of two speakers compete in each debate. Two teams debate each side of the proposition but each team is still competing against the other three. The style is becoming more common in universities in New Zealand and contrasts with the more familiar style of two teams of three speakers in a debate.

Export year and paper money

Export year is over, but where are the achievement? See

The soundness of our paper currency is under challenge from a pro-growth group. See

Language Mangler

Seen in a shop invitation to put gift's under the tree for Christma's.

A real estate advertisement offered a property in “sort after Seaview”. And another property was said to suit ‘professional’s”

Is there no end to the abuse of the apostrophe?

There’s a Mercedes car in Wellington with the number plate MRPLOD. I mean why would you bother?

I also spotted IN A BOX on a number plate which turns out to be a business that builds website (It offers “webby good sites.”)

“We except all major credit cards" - this from an on line florist.

A reader complains “one thing that really gets me is the tendency of some people to pluralise words unnecessarily. Even university educated people say 'John Keys'. And 'Daylight Savings' and 'Country Roads' (the shop) are common. I won't be surprised to hear Kevin Rudds coming out of my TV or radio any day now.” He has a point.

Ever lost your baggage?

“Why do so many passengers get off the plane only to discover that their baggage did not make the trip with them? American Airlines started asking that question with greater urgency a year ago, and its search for answers led to, among other problems, dirty printer heads. Workers at American found that printers that produce adhesive tags for bags were often dirty. That made bar codes hard to read, leading to misdirected bags. Regular wiping of the printer heads helped, but even with a clean printer, the bar code readers are only about 90 to 92 percent accurate, said Denise P. Wilewski, manager of airport services for American here. "We never hit 100 percent -- 90 percent is acceptable," she said.” Levine Breaking News. So when was 90% accuracy acceptable, eh?


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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