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.