All posts by Noel Turnbull

Odds and sods part 3

Adani and Indian banks

Australian politicians seem mesmerised by Adani and his proposal for a giant Queensland coal mine. Whether to do the obvious thing and protect the environment and our future by stopping it; going along with mythical claims of job creation; or, to just wait it out seems to perplex everyone except the coal zealots in the Federal Government. read more

Odds and sods part 2

‘Great’ Britain, the reckoning and the innovation

Brexit may be a tragedy for Britain but the blog finds it difficult to feel much sympathy for those who voted to follow Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg (although in his case it is probably preferable to follow his politics than his style in attire), Nigel Farage et al. read more

Some holiday reading odds and sods – part one

Over the next few weeks the blog will provide some odds and sods – bits and pieces on a variety of things – which hopefully will provide some interesting, useful and/or amusing holiday reading.


The long history of adapting old words to new purposes is often useful, sometimes a bit precious and sometimes both pretentious and irritating. read more

Will some pr companies stop at nothing?

Over the years we have seen many US PR firms undertake campaigns which range from the unethical to the outright dishonest. In the UK Bell Pottinger, literally as well as metaphorically (just to show the blog is among the fuddy duddies who insist on the distinction between the two), saw its company and brand destroyed after its work for the Gupta brothers in SouthAfrica. read more

How do you know when they are lying? A very brief thought.

For many years cynics posed the question – how do you know when a politician is lying?

The answer of course was: when you see their lips moving.

For all the talk about the evils of social media and fake news there is a new version of the hoary old favourite.

How do you know today when a politician is lying?

The answer this time, of course, is when their lips or thumbs are moving.

Abundant evidence exists, that for those of high intelligence and genius status it is possible, and possibly essential, that they do both at once.

It’s all different now – not!

In June next year the International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

As well as having a gala dinner (Australians always think of it as a galah dinner given the behaviour at some PR dinners) the conference will look not only at PR history and related subjects but also the history of the conference itself.

Two of the great revelations from 10 years of conferences are: that the US-centric view of PR history is just plain wrong; and, that while technology changes much of the tactics of PR, strategy continues to contain some universal features. The blog discussed some of this in its book – How PR Works But Often Doesn’t – available free online on this site.

The conferences are organised by the Public Relations Research Group of the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University in the UK. The founder, and for many years, the driving force behind the conferences was the Australian academic – Tom Watson – who relocated to Bournemouth.

In the materials announcing the 10th anniversary conference – from June 26-28 2019 – the organisers reflect on some of the themes which have been significant over the years.

They include subjects such as the developing or diverging relationships with other disciplines such as corporate governance, HR, marketing and legal; and, the historiography of public relations and the application of historical theories and interpretations to the history of PR. In the latter area the blog has regularly written about the relevance of the work of historians such as Peter Burke and Andrew Pettergree to an understanding of not only major events in history – such as the Reformation and monarchical government – but also to PR history and contemporary practice.

Conferences have also challenged the ‘great man’ or ’great woman’ view of how the industry was shaped in explorations similar to those being undertaken in other areas of history – particularly in terms of women, indigenous communities and other groups neglected by history for centuries. At the same time it has looked at organisational structures in companies, NGOs and other organisations and how that shaped PR practice.

Some of the conferences looked at the tools practitioners use from media releases to social media and how the technology is less significant than the framing, the message and the targeting. They have also emphasised alternative views of practice- for instance the significance of networking and issues scanning revealed by Professor Anne Gregory in her research into what senior practitioners actually do.

What PR practice has actually been called – through press agentry to propaganda and strategic communications – has been addressed. This is useful, from the blog’s point of view, as an integral part of confronting the many myths practitioners and industry associations have promulgated about the industry as a ‘profession’. Practitioners can be professional but it is a sad joke to describe the industry as a profession.

There have been many other themes and subjects: ethics, oral histories, PR theory and theories; how PR practice differs in various sectors of the economy from industry to government; the formation of professional bodies and how they have impacted on the industry; and, the usefulness of oral histories.

In terms of professional bodies it may well be that the most significant research on them will be into their obituaries as they become less and less relevant to practitioners from dramatically different professional backgrounds. Any quick survey of the most senior practitioners in the private and public sector reveals how few of them are members of organisations such as Australia’s Public Relations Institute or its international counterparts.

The shaping of public opinion – how, when and why – is a far too important subject to be left to other disciplines such as political science –even if many political science academics such as Sydney’s Professor Rod Tiffen continue to provide us with important insights into politics, the media, and political PR. The conferences address this need.

The blog has been meaning to go to one of the conferences for years but has been content to read the abstracts, the proceedings and some of the published journal output. But being a retired practitioner, who mainly comments from the sidelines, it doesn’t seem so urgent. But for those young practitioners obsessing over contemporary tactics and techniques it is worth sparing some time to explore some deeper strategic perspectives which can be illuminated by some attention to the incredible diversity of the things which make up PR history. They can all be found here.

A new – toxic – dimension to political PR

For decades there have been crossovers between politics and PR – but in recent years such cross-overs have not only differed qualitatively but also become toxic.

The latest example of just how toxic has been the Definers’ role with Facebook although it should not be imagined that the incident (of which more later) was an outlier.

Many people have moved from PR to politics and from politics to PR. The founder of what was long Australia’s biggest PR consultancy, Eric White Associates, worked for Robert Menzies before leaving to establish the consultancy which stretched beyond Australia to Asia – although its Asian expansion was assisted by clandestine investment by ASIS.

For many years the major source of political PR people was ex-journalists. Initially called Press Secretaries because that’s actually what they did – dealt with the press – they then became media advisors catching up with new media landscape realities although their major job was media liaison and tactics rather than political strategy. Probably the first real Press Secretary was actually also the Prime Minister, John Curtin, who was a former journalist and was fastidious during World War II in briefing journalists. There have been few media advisors, however legendary some are, as effective.

What has probably driven the new toxic situation is the fact that political PR is increasingly being driven by partisan campaigners bringing the toxic tactics they used in campaigns into both representing governments while jumping in their careers from government offices to lobbying and other commercial PR activities. In this respect Tim Miller, the former Republican political operative who works in Silicon Valley for Definers Public Affairs, is a prime example. He recently handled the Facebook campaign which attempted to cast Facebook critics as agents of populist hate figure, George Soros. Inevitably, given the other attacks on Soros in countries such as Hungary, the Miller campaign is coloured by the anti-Semitic sub text of all the other campaigns.

For an interesting take on Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s mishandling of the scandal and her leaning in while claiming she was leaning out role in ‘hiring (such) political hitmen’, see Molly Roberts’ piece in The Washington Post.

The New York Times’ Jack Nicas provides a more detailed account of the affair plus looking at Mitchell’s work for other clients such as Qualcomm (an anti-Apple campaign); Juul (a campaign to combat negative publicity about allegedly promoting e-cigarettes to children); and, scooter company, Lime, which took a “more aggressive tack against rivals.” The Australian crisis and issues management expert, Tony Jacques, has also published an excellent analysis of the Definers case.

The Economist also reported (24 November 2018) that Facebook had reacted to another NYT story (14/11) by trying to downplay the extent of Russian electoral interference by using opposition research based lobbying “to deflect blame onto other firms and to tarnish critics.”’

It is no wonder that heads of several big technology companies have started to refer to Facebook as ‘big tobacco’; adult Facebook usage has fallen by 31% in two years; some advertisers are becoming disillusioned and questioning Facebook claims about audience reach; and many people (such as the blog) have just deleted their accounts. Sad to miss the posts of friends such as Race Mathews and John Dyett, but while the blog regards Soros a bit like Carnegie – not too keen on the ways the money was made but totally approving of how it has been spent and totally disapproving of the attacks on him.

In the US the combination of campaigning and lobbying is probably exemplified by Paul Manafort (of Robert Mueller fame) and his partners Charlie Black and Roger Stone. They worked on political campaigns including for Ronald Reagan; set up lobbying companies because, as Manafort said, “It paid well”; and, continued in political campaign roles. The Washington Post has published a long piece on how they did this, the firm’s links to Trump and how they created the swamp-like mess Trump promised to clean up.

The trio, and others who work in similar ways, managed to work on campaigns, lobby the people they worked for, and also provide ongoing media commentary on the state of play.

Moreover, the way modern political campaigners think about campaigns – and dumb them down – is illustrated by a Jo Johnson (the Remainer brother of the most unusual Foreign Secretary since George Brown) article (WFT 17/18 November 2018) about his resignation as Transport Minister. In it he recounts his time working on the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election. The team reported directly to David Cameron and George Osborne and aimed to develop ideas “spanning the full spectrum of public policy”.

From the start, Johnson said, the party’s political strategist Lynton Crosby “made clear that from his point of view my first duty was to do no harm. In an ideal world, he’d rather not have had a manifesto at all, especially one stuffed full of policies, but he recognised they were a necessary evil. His priority was to ‘scrape the barnacles off the boat’ so that by the time the campaign entered its crucial short phase we had a honed message.” Sadly for the Tories the referendum pledge didn’t come out with the other barnacles and the campaign may have resulted in a Tory majority but also in David Cameron losing his job.

The logical extension of the clearing of barnacles approach was also the 2017 ‘strong and stable’ campaign which, as we now know, was so successful that it almost made Jeremy Corbyn PM and may still do so. What such an approach might do for Scott Morrison is yet to be seen.

More significantly, however, the quest for good policy is becoming a mirage-like illusion in such political environments. Significant policy development and change rarely come quickly. Arguably policy conventional wisdom takes generations to change as we have seen from Keynes to Friedman to Piketty.

A discussion of why this is important is contained in an interview with Grattan Institute CEO, John Daley, in The Mandarin (15 November 2018). Daley says that in terms of policy development and promotion “you have to be very, very patient….Indeed, the reason that substantial high quality policy reform does not happen is usually not the opposition is too powerful. The reason that policy reform fails is that someone gave up.”

And he adds: “Figuring out the right (policy) answer is the first half of the problem. Figuring out how to communicate it in a way that is clear, cogent, persuasive and easy to read actually takes a lot of work.”

In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle: ‘wouldn’t it be luverly’ if a new generation of political PR and campaign operatives did that rather than clearing the barnacles or making the policy and political environment toxic.

The better angels of our nature

Yeats more downbeat verse, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole said recently, is increasingly used to characterise our contemporary problems. Perhaps, given that context, it is unsurprising and sad that another famous quote, from Abraham Lincoln and which inspired Walt Whitman, is less often heard today.

That’s ‘the better angels of our nature’, from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. It was used as the title of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book on the decline of violence which was much scoffed at but which has compelling arguments starting from the genocide god incites in the Old Testament to the levels of violence in countries post-WWII. But since then it has been used, perhaps understandably in the Trump era, much less

The blog thought of the phrase again in the context of the recent Victorian election which the Andrews Government won in a landslide and which, from early indications, may only need a couple of extra votes in the Legislative Council to get legislation through.

On election night the Premier Daniel Andrews spoke about the success of a positive and optimistic campaign. Unspoken was the implication that this contrasted with the negativism and fear used by the Opposition and successive reactionary governments around the world. Trump is merely the latest of them from the fake Zinoviev letter in the 1920s in the UK; to McCarthyism and its local counterpart under Menzies; to the forerunner of modern racist campaigns against immigrants with Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech; and to their pale imitators Matthew Guy and Peter Dutton.

Needless to say we also ought not overlook in all this the US South’s ongoing exploitation of racial fears, from Nathan Bedford Forrest’s terrorist undermining of Reconstruction, to the disgusting advertising used by the Bush Snr campaign against Michael Dukakis.

And we can expect that the forthcoming Federal election will be the mother of all Australian negative campaigns. Terrorists under the bed; pretences that ALP proposed changes to franking credit policies will damage ordinary people even though beneficiaries affected have millions in assets which they will merely pass on to their next generation; spiralling energy costs because Labor is promising to make a modest start on addressing climate change; and, of course that all children will be forced to become transgender.

The Victorian Liberal Party tried almost all of these assisted by the Murdoch media with help from Peter Dutton saying we were all too frightened to go out at night because of Sudanese gangs. His colleague, Christopher Pyne, when asked while visiting Melbourne about whether he was frightened to go out for dinner, simply looked puzzled before he realised the question’s context. For perhaps the first time in his political career – from his university days onwards – he was unable to spout an immediate torrent of words and instead just giggled.

Dutton is an ex-Queensland copper with nine years in the drug squad starting three years after the Fitzgerald Inquiry – meaning there is no doubt that he accumulated any wealth he has by conventional means even if some of it is alleged in Parliament to be through payments from the Crown thereby possibly disbarring him from office. But what might play well with some of his ex-copper mates in Queensland – like the one that got a visa for his family’s nanny – didn’t play so well in Australia’s progressive capital. In contrast Daniel Andrews, two days after the election, promised to tackle what was really the country’s greatest law and order problem – domestic violence. After all, more Australian women are the victims of fatal domestic violence than there are Australians of all sexes who have been killed by terrorists.

The first problem, however, with negative campaigns – as practised by Dutton and Scott Morrison – is that they aren’t that subtle. In contrast John Howard was a master who had learnt at the feet of George W. Bush’s advisors. Howard admitted to a senior NSW Liberal, who was sufficiently embarrassed by it to mention the fact to the blog, that Howard came back from meetings with Bush US Republican apparatchiks committed to wedge tactics designed to separate blue collar workers from their natural party. The Tampa affair, with the benefits of some lies and Kim Beazley’s wishy washiness, was the first major example of this strategy.

The second is the need for some authenticity in the proponent – a quality clearly lacking in Morrison. On its regular Sunday morning beachfront walk the blog ran into one of the regular City of Port Phillip garbage collectors with whom the blog has chatted over the years. The garbo, as well as driving the Council street sweeper doubles up from time to time on Sunday morning beach cleaning and is also an expert on Nepalese cuisine – so much so that he has written a recipe book for which the blog has sadly not managed to help him find a publisher. Both he and the blog are of ages to remember the Bluey and Curley comic strips and laugh about Scott Morrison’s resort to phrases from that era and the fake nature of his ‘authenticity’. By the way, the blog wrote a while ago that Scott Morrison may resemble a character in a Bluey and Curley comic strip but was not quite a Barry Humphries’ Les Patterson character. The blog apologises – given Morrison’s Pamela Anderson comments which the Government Minister for Women (miraculously with this Government a woman) sort of tried to write off – there is obviously a little bit of the Les Patterson as well as Bluey and Curley after all.

The third problem is that, other than catering to a narrow-minded bigoted ‘base’ they simply don’t resonate with the six out ten Australians who voted to support same sex marriage and support other progressive measures. The blog’s local electorate, Albert Park, is a good example. For the past two elections commentators have been suggesting that the incumbent, Martin Foley, was vulnerable because of the influx of young professionals and downsizing retirees who were supposedly more likely to vote Liberal or Green. In reality Foley achieved a massive swing made possible by those very same young professionals and retirees.

All in all reactionaries need to get out of the echo chamber and late night Sky News bubble and confront reality. The sad fact, while the blog is reluctant to dredge up yet another old famous quote (also possibly un-PC these days), their form of reality probably constitutes a suitable case for treatment.

And the final word should go to Frank Vincent AO – a distinguished jurist and a stalwart and extremely eloquent supporter of the annual Port Melbourne Whittaker commemoration event. Remarking on the Victorian result he said: “It is increasingly apparent that the employment of ultra conservative and essentially primitive rhetoric to engender fear and the adoption of policies of the Trumpist kind are not being accepted across a wide demographic in this country. We are showing ourselves to be better than that.”

Indeed, it is clear sign that being better than that we should hark  the better angels of our nature.

When in dire need

When communicators were in dire need – confronted by legislation or projects their bosses and clients opposed – there were some simple phrases and tactics they often fell back on. The problem today though is the extent to which they are now ineffective or just archaic.

The blog has noticed that variants of some of them are being increasingly used in Federal politics as the Government sinks further into chaos and the Labor Opposition, remarkably, seems committed to announcing progressive policies which would be considered mainstream in much of Europe (and even perhaps the UK) if not in Australia or the US.

But in terms of effectiveness and contemporary currency, sadly many of these variants have become empty and clichéd. The blog, for instance, can remember using the phrase unintended consequences to some effect some decades ago. Nowadays the phrase still has some currency because it can be used about any policy or legislative change from taxation to the environment you oppose. The advantage is that you don’t need to spell the consequences out – rather you leave it to the imagination of the message recipient as the best horror films do – even if these days the only people to take it seriously would be AFR reporters regurgitating business organisation platitudes.

What impact it has on the general public is moot but it continues to have some appeal because it does have some resemblance to general political campaigning around fears of the unknown. However, in this context it might be a bit subtle in an era when we are allegedly imprisoned in our houses terrified of going out for dinner because of Sudanese gangs. This messaging has a more visceral appeal than the rather intellectual and multisyllabic unintended consequences.

Playing God still gets some airplay. Religious people in politics probably think it is a righteous argument even if they dodge some of the theological problems it raises. Nevertheless, it can be used to argue that some intervention is unlikely to be successful because it assumes the perpetrator doesn’t have the power he/she imagines. It is particularly useful when opposing policies which are designed to alleviate problems – famine, diseases, poverty and so on – which require government spending and compassion.

Red tape is a favourite – in the sense that some legislative idea would embroil business or voters in red tape – which continues to have resonance. It is convenient because everyone is opposed to red tape even if, when the issue is framed differently, they are in favour of regulation which controls, for instance, pollution or food safety. The Abbott Government, copying the US, introduced a day in Parliament dedicated to a bonfire of red tape. It is easy enough to find legislation and regulation which is outdated but these are simply the framing around more significant targets.

One the blog hasn’t heard for years is that something could be put to nefarious uses. This is a relic of long gone Tories in suits and weskits railing against being soft on crime and, like unintended consequences, would not appeal to contemporary political party apparatchiks searching for more populist rhetoric. It was also, to be fair, often a mainstay of aristocratic British progressives and Labour types opposing government legislation which could be used to limit civil rights.

In a way the blog is sad about the demise of such tactics. They, although now clichéd, had a degree of intellectual appearance and rather more substance than the current PM’s use of fair go, fair dinkum and other Australianisms which were common in Bluey and Curley cartoons but not so much in modern Australia other than in Barry Humphries performances. One almost expects the PM to come out with stone the crows or fair crack of the whip next if not the Les Patterson type behaviour.

But the lack of authenticity (BTW you don’t claim to be authentic any more than you don’t claim to be cool – you just are ) is highlighted by the fact that modern Australians, influenced by US media or different national backgrounds, would be more at home with African American slang or colloquial European and Asian phrases.

Of course, the glib phrases are not the only modern techniques to oppose things. A quick report by an accounting firm or think tank can do the job with more credibility – particularly when the journalists reporting on it (with a few notable exceptions) fail to interrogate the assumptions and methodologies underlying the report even if a few of them do ask, if the results are inimical to their world view, who commissioned it.

And we must never forget that perennial favourite – the opinion poll with or without agreement set response questions. This continues to be a modern favourite which just keeps on giving headlines and social media coverage without anyone getting too bothered about sample size, question construction or – most importantly – why it was commissioned.

But in thinking about the past and current use of phrases and tactics – one can’t help but wonder what a commentator might reflect on, in a few decades time, about the growing number of contemporary social media variants.

It would seem, if the current literature is any indication, that Richard Dawkins’ prescient 1976 discussion of memes will be at the centre of that reflection.

We need to talk about Scott – just as we needed to talk about Kevin

It’s probably too early to indicate a trend but it appears from recent polls possible that the more the Australian public sees of our new Prime Minister the less they like him. Nevertheless it may not be too early to start deconstructing why that might be.

Now the blog has an inbuilt concern about a Pentecostal like our PM. Having been to Oberammergau to see the new production, stripped of its anti-Semitism partly due to the scholarly deconstruction by James Shapiro of the old version but with a lot of help from others, the blog in one of the meal breaks sat with some families who had children working in Sydney at Hillsong and other evangelicals.

At the time the blog thought it was probably pointless to say it was an atheist only interested in a cultural event which had been transmogrified into something different from its original, but in retrospect it has reflected on how much the audience’s modes and speech patterns resemble that of our PM. While it is commonplace to refer to the PM’s rhetoric as being modelled on marketing mantras instead they are rather like the sort of evangelical stuff one hears from modern day evangelicals if not quite Elmer Gantry stuff.

A more illuminating version of the evangelical audience was a man who sat in the row in front of the blog during the Oberammergau with a copy of the Bible periodically muttering that they weren’t keeping to the story. This may have been because the new post-Shapiro version makes it clear that Jesus, if he existed, was a Rabbi and the Last Supper was a Passover dinner.

One can imagine the PM communing with these people – particularly as he wants to shift the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem along with the US evangelicals who fervently believe the Apocalypse will come when Jesus returns and sinners, Jews, Muslims, atheists and others are sent to burn in hell while they reside in Paradise. If you think this is a joke you might remember that this is the worldview of a significant number of Republicans – including national and State congressional members. If you are not sure who they are – they are normally the ones caught out in various sexual escapades.

A more critical viewpoint, formed after the blog went with its grandughter to the Royal Melbourne Show, is that the PM’s style combines the evangelical stuff with the style and approach of fairground spruikers. On the day the blog went the rain came down and the spruikers managed to rapidly shift from spruiking their rides and games to selling umbrellas – welcome however over-priced. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, the rhetoric and approach resembled that of our PM.

The other problem with the PM’s style is the constant reiteration by supporters in the government and the media that the PM is being ‘authentic’. Authenticity is the ultimate goal of any brand image but the problem is that it needs to be genuinely authentic and not manufactured. It’s not like honest and sincerity which Groucho Marx memorably described as – if you could fake it you had it made. In contrast, if the PM is actually authentic then we are in deeper trouble than we thought.

Another problem is that the PM’s blokey persona is hardly representative of modern Australia whatever members of his party fantasise about the base as Wentworth and, possibly, Warringah, demonstrate.

But the more profound problem is that the Government keeps shooting itself in the foot – with examples too numerous for the blog to list. But one example might suffice. For some incomprehensible reason The Age (14 November 2018) published a piece by one of the government’s right wingers, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells in which the statement was made that: “Now, whether one believes that CO2 is plant food, vital for the health of the planet, where the climate has been changing since the beginning of time, or whether one falls into the “Al Gore” camp living a state of nervousness because Armageddon is just over the horizon, it remains important that we deal with today’s realities and the impact of climate change.”

Well, ummm, only nutters and Mad Monks believe the first part of the statement and presumably the article is either simply a preview of what Fairfax will be like under Nine control or a Blackadder style cunning plan to increase the ALP vote in the forthcoming Victorian election. But, at the least, it gives away the hard core beliefs of members of the Government and their incompetence in framing choices.

And, as for the implication of this for the forthcoming election, the blog recently looked up the FiveThirtyEight Bayesian model for predicting election outcomes. It’s not perfect because of a whole host of variables but it is a useful guide to probabilities. In the case of the Australian election, with a prediction possibly more robust than in an electorate with voluntary voting and widespread voter suppression, the probability of Bill Shorten becoming PM is about 75%. However, as Nate Silver said about his probability estimates for the 2016 Presidential election – would you take the same odds of a Trump victory in a game of Russian roulette?

Just don’t trust a spruiker offering you better odds.