Come in Spinner: The gong show

Back in January an acquaintance of mine got a gong. It was a very good gong and very well-deserved.

He had worked in the arts for many years, as well as undertaking an astonishing range of roles in many organisations, and when you compare his achievements with those of the other names on the list, you would conclude that some of them were, relatively, honoured mainly for doing their jobs and for being extremely well-paid for doing so.

A few days earlier I had noticed an AFR article about dressing up CVs to win honours which quoted PR man, Mike Smith, saying that while he had edited submissions for Australian awards he had not prepared them. With all due respect, that sounds like disingenuousness as it wouldn’t match the experience of most other senior PR people.

The honours people have made efforts to broaden the range of nominations and the system is more inclusive than the old imperial awards but ultimately they depend on who gets nominated. The sad reality is that a large number of nominations are the result of sustained PR campaigns by universities, big companies, public service departments, political parties, professional and industry associations and not-for-profit organisations.

No-one can begrudge the university professors (often medicos) or the not-for-profits as many of the professors make massive contributions to society while being paid less than a mid-level PR manager; and most of the not-for-profits achieve a great deal with very few resources. Similarly, the poet Tom Shapcott, when with the Literature Board and the National Book Council, tried very hard to nominate literary types for awards in the hope that they would achieve a small percentage of the number of awards given to sportspeople and business boys and girls.

However, every corporate affairs manager and most PR consultants have at some stage or other prepared a nomination for someone as a means of promoting the organisation or company to which the nominated individual belongs.

This process is part of what is seen in PR as ‘expert positioning’ – positioning a person from an organisation as an expert commentator. The idea is that after you promote them to the media for a while the media starts to automatically come to them for comment. You help the media by issuing apposite quotes on the issue of the day to keep the media coverage coming and it’s part of the reason why you see so many of the same people in the media all the time.

Organising speaking engagements which can give an executive a platform and generate publicity; expert data bases (I’m on one myself) which allow journalists to quickly identify an ‘expert’ on almost any given subject; and even publishing books (pollies are good at this), are all tactics which PR people use to create ‘experts’. Needless to say the experts need to have some expertise, however that expertise would often not be recognised but for steady PR support.

The results of expert positioning are apparent in the media every day. But with the honours list you need to look a bit more closely. For instance, in the 2010 honours list 7.8% of those given honours were members of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. 22% of the AICD members who got gongs got an AO or an AC. If you look at another indicator, where you went to university, University of Melbourne alumni accounted 8.7% of awards. I haven’t checked the figures for other universities but would expect that the Group of 8 would account for a very high number of those honoured.

This is not to suggest that AICD or UoM nominates all these people themselves. Others have, and there is some overlap in the AICD list with universities, not for profits and politics. And…just as one wouldn’t begrudge a writer an honour, nor would one begrudge AICD members such as James Fairfax one either.

The consequence of this is that the rich and powerful are even better known and become, if not Paris Hilton and Laura Bingle, celebrities of a sort. The celebrity status then generates more coverage and the celebrity status is further enhanced.

As an 18th century writer said: this “disposition to admire, and almost to worship the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, neglect persons of poor and mean condition….is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” The writer, of course, was that Scot who so many business leaders are prone to invoke – Adam Smith.

RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTEREST: I have been paid to prepare nominations and my former firm once pitched (unsuccessfully) for a campaign to broaden the range of nominations. The Adam Smith quote I noticed in a Tony Judt article (NYRB December 17 2009,