Media secretaries

There is a common assumption that political media advisers are a modern invention but, although the quantity of them is at levels never before known, they have actually been around for a long time.

Reading an excellent essay by Ruth Starke on Don Dunstan in the March Australian Book Review I was struck by her assertion that “It is arguable whether any (sic) politician in Australia had a public relations officer on staff in 1965” in the context of Dunstan’s appointment of a young David Combe as an adviser. Ruth Starke describes David as a ‘public relations officer’ although one imagines that David would have been the combination of strategist, party operator, media adviser and many other things he was during much of his career.

Incidentally, when the blog was in the PR business full time, our firm had a relationship with David in his role as a Canberra lobbyist. It was at the time when ASIO and Bob Hawke were crucifying him over the Ivanov affair. Like others in our small office and throughout the ALP and other circles I was talking to David on the phone from time to time and, among other things, assuring him of my and our support. One wonders how many Australians who worked with, liked and admired David innocently ended up in ASIO files as a result.

There is no doubt that Dunstan was a brilliant user of the media probably only equalled in that era by the Victorian Premier, Henry Bolte. Peter Blazey’s Bolte:a biography contains a chapter describing Bolte’s media management tactics in detail. The chapter makes it clear that back in the 1960s Bolte was practising techniques which, as with Dunstan, were the forerunners of much of what media advisers do today.

But the use of media people – while Dunstan had Combe, Bolte had Lance Loader and Syd Kelleway – had been around for a while. Billy Hughes appointed the first Government press officer in 1918 and while the person worked for ‘the government’ it was clear he worked for Billy first and foremost.  After Robert Menzies became Prime Minister he appointed Eric White as a press adviser and later Eric went on to set up (with the help of ASIS) the first multinational and publicly listed public relations company in the world. In a chapter, Perspectives on Government PR in Government Communication in Australia (ed. Sally Young) I described and discussed some of this history of government PR and media management.

Perhaps where Dunstan and Bolte were, to adapt Ruth Starke, arguably innovators in political media management was the extent to which media management became an integral part of political management. While in the 1950s and 60s people like Richard Casey and Paul Hasluck openly expressed their disdain for the media and media management Dunstan and Bolte openly enjoyed the sport, the strategic leaks, the manufactured media events and the interplay with the gallery.

It is possible however, in the context of current saturation media management, that even Dunstan and Bolte would not be as successful today as they were then. One suspects though that they might still have been the leaders of the pack.