Keynote address delivered to the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s ACT Awards for Excellence, 10 September 2010.
Forty years ago I stumbled – in a pub – into public relations.
Back then pubs were pubs, journalists were reporters, reporters were more numerous than PR people, and reporters spent more time in pubs than journalists do today.
I was drinking with Lionel Pugh, a reporter on The Australian newspaper. Having dropped out of university and trying to survive on freelance work I desperately needed a job. Lionel said a public relations company, Eric White Associates, was looking for consultants and suggested I contact an acquaintance of his there.
With almost no knowledge of public relations, beyond the odd contact with someone trying to a place a story in a paper, I got the job on Lionel’s recommendation.
Tonight I’d like to talk a bit about what I learnt over those 40 years about two aspects of PR – the role of political advisers and the role of public relations in government.
First, political advisers – of which I was one for some five years – who are the bane of the lives of everyone in government trying to run effective PR campaigns.
In the US television series, The Sopranos, characters spend much of their time imitating the characters in The Godfather. They strike the same poses and use the same phrases. While this is a case of art imitating art, it appears that life also imitates art among real Mafioso who now have both the films and the television shows as behaviour models.
Something similar has happened in politics with many political staffers addicted to The West Wing. Whether ironically or inadvertently the same imitation of postures and phrases is seeping into the political process just as The Godfather and The Sopranos seeped into the world of the Mafia.
My generation’s preferred political television had been Yes Minister where the sets and settings were minimal and the art was in the words. We broke news stories in the print media knowing that they would be followed up on radio and television the next day or that night.
My life in politics as an activist and political staffer, however, really bridged that transition period in which politics moved from print media and just words to a world in which words and images combined and new West Wing ways of using words developed.
It was epitomised by an experience I had while working with Victorian Opposition Leader, Frank Wilkes in the 1970s.
There had been controversy in South Australia about the Special Branch and we wanted to use that to create a storm about the Victorian counterpart.
Aided by a former Special Branch member who had become an ALP MP we put together a report on why Special Branch should be abolished.
Frank contacted the Premier, Dick Hamer, and offered to meet him and give him a copy of the report before we released it to the media.
We let the media know we were going to see the Premier but didn’t think much more about it. On the day of the appointment we decided to walk out of Parliament House through the car park and across the street to the nearby Premier’s Office.
I was amazed to discover that just about every TV crew, lots of radio people and crowds of newspaper photographers were there to cover the walk.
We never got much coverage on the report but we got prime time coverage on the walk and I realised the world was changing. And that the political TV or web image, like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, was beginning to define much of what we think politically
The lesson was useful decades later.
Walking along Treasury Place in Melbourne three of us from the Melbourne International Arts Festival, accidentally came across the Victorian Arts Minister, Mary Delahunty (who had been a wonderful Minister for the Festival), getting out of her car and being interviewed by TV stations about speculation that she would be opposed for pre-selection in her safe seat.
The cameras and car were behind bollards in Treasury Place and it was obvious that once the interview was over the next footage would be of the Minister making a lonely walk into the office where a Cabinet meeting would be held. I immediately rushed over to Mary, and while the cameras were still rolling, gave her a hug, kissed her on the cheek and wished her well.
That night the footage was not of an embattled Minister on a lonely walk but of a Minister being wished good luck by random passers-by. The ‘optics’, as the media minders call them, of the story had been changed even if nothing else had.
Nevertheless, watching many political and media advisers up close since then, my general impression is that many of them they are both over-rated and probably a bit limited in their outlook and performance.
This is probably a good thing for democracy because, as the political scientist, Rodney Tiffen, says “the most heartening feature of political public relations is how often it fails.”
Part of their limitation is probably their narrow focus on the media and their narrow focus on life and their absorption of Press Gallery groupthink.
Media advisers wield great power because they are seen as the arbiters of how to get news coverage or manage coverage.
In some cases this comes from experience but often it is more a matter of attitude than analysis. Michael Gurr’s memoir, Days Like These, tells of his problems with journalists turned political staffers discussing a speech he was writing for Steve Bracks.
“Meeting for the speech. I’d asked for the meeting to be kept small but there were about ten of us. The media office hadn’t read the speech – but immediately started flicking through it dismissively. “I can’t write a press release from this. There’s no substance – this is all emotional.” (p 47) Later the media advisers object to some introductory words to a speech because they are “warm and fuzzy” and not “punchy.” Another media adviser objects to the use of the word “ethos” but is over-ridden by Steve Bracks, although later Gurr hears two of the advisers talking: “What’s with this fuckun ethos stuff?”
Again Rod Tiffen got the group think environment spot on when he called this obsessive interest in the media by political advisers a problem of ‘coterie communication’ in which the coterie operated in a ‘hall of mirrors’ in which they are “audience one minute, actors the next; targets of some messages, sources of others.”
I should say that I can hardly be holier than thou on the subject.
Back in the days when I worked with Frank Wilkes the ALP Legislative Council Leader, Jack Galbally, had started a review of ALP policy designed to get rid of laws such as those criminalising homosexuality. Jack retired and the policy was passed on to the new Shadow Attorney-General, Barry Jones, who then also retired from State politics to go into a Federal seat. The new policy was inherited by the new Shadow Attorney-General, John Cain.
Unbeknownst to almost anyone outside the policy committee, the new policy also proposed de-criminalising bestiality.
An ashen-faced John Cain came into the Opposition media office on a Friday afternoon just before the weekend ALP conference at which the policy was to be debated. He had become aware that some of the shock jocks knew of the policy and was concerned that it would develop into a controversy which would detract from the other law reform measures in the policy.
We were clear that, knowing the shock jocks, the policy was likely to portrayed as the ALP wanting to make sexual relations with animals both legal and compulsory. After some hurried thought a solution emerged, refer that section of the policy to the policy committee looking at animal rights and welfare to ensure that we were not righting one wrong only to create another.
As a result the policy disappeared into the committee and then disappeared forever.
My experiences of PR in government were much more positive.
They started when we started a consultancy and began to do significant amounts of government work – although our work in the field didn’t start too well.
The first time I presented to the Government Ministerial committee deciding on campaigns it was chaired by Senator Graham Richardson.
We won, largely because of the rural and remote experience of our Adelaide office, a major Landcare campaign. The problem for us was that we were also working for the forest industry at a time when some angry timber workers had jostled Richardson outside the Ravenshoe Town Hall. These were big men, much bigger than Richardson, and the television footage showed that they unnerved him, as they would anyone.
We were told, after we had been awarded the Landcare project but before we had signed any contracts, that Richardson had apparently decided we should have it taken away because we were allegedly a National Party front which had organised people to attack him physically. We called in everyone we knew who could influence the government and got the decision reversed. In Richardson’s defence he was never hypocritical about these things. “It wasn’t personal maaaaate” just a straight ‘payback’, was a comment (perhaps apocryphal) which got relayed back to us after it was all over.
As we all know the involvement of politicians can slightly skew not only consultancy choices but also communication channel choices, particularly because most of them put heavy emphasis on media relations as important parts of campaigns.
We were pitching for a program with the Department of Veterans Affairs who were planning to shift the long-standing Repatriation Hospitals for ex-servicemen and women over to the management of State Governments. The original brief for the job placed a heavy emphasis on direct mail. This was obvious and appropriate because the most affected stakeholders were returned servicemen and women and the department knew exactly who they were and where they lived.
At the very last minute, just before the short-listed companies went in to pitch, someone at the political end persuaded the Minister in charge of the tendering process, Ros Kelly, to take the direct mail out of the brief and opt for a publicity campaign.
Just before going into the room to present Neil Smail asked for a quiet word and warned us that we would be asked about the change. He did the same with the other agencies. He never directed us to answer it in a specific way, but we all knew this was a political decision and it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to point out how dumb it was.
We went in and sure enough the Minister asked us whether it was a good idea to shift the focus from the direct mail to the publicity campaign. There was a silence in the room before I mumbled some cowardly reply and kicked myself for weeks after for not telling the truth. After that I made it a practice to say what I thought to the Ministerial committee and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
It certainly didn’t work with the new Howard Government and the firearms campaign when the committee’s operations made Senator Richardson look subtle, courtly and concerned.
We were recommended for the job but got passed over when the Prime Minister’s media adviser, Graeme Morris, and others insisted that with the delicate issues management involved, a ‘big-hitter’ was needed on the campaign. What that apparently meant was that one of the agencies was encouraged to involve a Canberra PR person who had worked on many Liberal election campaigns. The decision took a while to be made – apparently because it took a while to make the new arrangements.
We suspected something was up straight after we pitched because Graeme Morris was particularly effusive and was free with the ‘maaates’. In the end we lost the pitch as did another agency, Rowland. We got the Victorian firearms buyback campaign and they got the Queensland Government program. Rowlands and our firm ultimately shared a Golden Target award for the two campaigns.
As many of you will recall there was a Senate estimates committee inquiry into the entire contract as the advertising also went to the group who had done the Liberals election campaign.
The Government appeared to search around for a scapegoat and a then OGIA staff member, Deb Keeley, who had been totally blameless and professional throughout the whole process was punished. This time I didn’t stay quiet and made a number of speeches on the subject, including one at a PRIA Conference in Brisbane in 1998 when I shared a platform with the Minister in charge of the process, David Jull.
David was fundamentally decent, and possibly a bit embarrassed, but it was the first time one of the consultancies had condemned the government and the process publicly. Needless to say we didn’t get many more jobs – with the notable exception of projects for Health Minister Michael Wooldridge and his chief of staff Ken Smith and eventually, I stopped going to the committee altogether as it was obvious that it was just reducing the firm’s capacity to win work.
Whatever the bad and odd experience, however, I was always impressed by the astonishing professionalism of the public servants running the process and always depressed by the political interference – with the really major exception of Bob McMullan who made it transparent, focussed and very successful. Bob tended to rely on professional assessments by the relevant departments.
He was also immensely considerate. It was common, before his time, for presentations on big campaigns to be scheduled at night. Given the difficulty of getting flights in and out of Canberra, this normally meant flying to Canberra early in the morning, hanging around for hours, giving a 15 minute presentation and then staying overnight. Under McMullan presentations were scheduled during the day, expenses for travel were re-imbursed and presentations took 45 minutes after which he asked intelligent questions.
But whatever the vagaries of the political input I loved working on government projects because they have a real capacity to make a difference to the quality of life of people.
The Be Wise with Medicines program conducted for the Department of Human Services and Health reduced risks with medication storage and consumption. It contributed, in a small way, to building support for the idea that not every health problem could be solved with a pill.
The 1993 Medicare entitlements program when Brian Howe was Health Minister contributed to making it impossible for the incoming 1996 Liberal-National Government to scrap the system.
The citizenship program for the Keating Government Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs resulted in a 700% increase in the number of eligible citizens seeking information on applying for citizenship. Many more followed through to become citizens.
The guns buyback program probably made Australia safer and irritated the hell out of the US gun lobby – a good result in itself.
It was during that campaign that I came across one of the best PR grabs I have ever heard – even if it didn’t come from a PR person – but rather from, Keith Payne, who had won the Victoria Cross in Vietnam.
When the gun buy back opponents began shrieking that if their guns were taken away they wouldn’t be able to defend the nation from invasions, Keith gave an interview which was reported nationally. He said: “If they want to defend Australia they ought to join the Army… (long pause) if they can pass the psych test”.
I learnt much from time working with Governments as a consultant on many other campaigns – much more than I did working as a political adviser.
There is no doubt that Government campaigns have been the pioneers and the pace-setters in social marketing. If sometimes political masters get hung up on shock horror campaigns, which generally don’t work, there are many more sophisticated and intelligent government campaigns which are making a difference to how people behave and thereby bringing benefits to the whole society.
Government PR people – if not always their political masters – have a better understanding of the respective role of advertising and PR realising that advertising is a one way form of communication and that good PR is required to produce meaningful conversations with the public.
The standards of research and evaluation in public sector campaigns set the benchmark for everyone in the industry.
And despite some experiences with Ministerial committees there is no doubt in my mind that the standards of accountability, responsibility and risk management are far superior in the public sector to those in the private sector.
But – looking back on the past 40 odd years of PR there is really only one important thing I want to say to you all – thank you for letting me work on some great campaigns with some very great professionals.