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(image: Tina Tiller)
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OPINIONBusinessMarch 21, 2023

Guyon Espiner reveals the banal and bleak machinations of government lobbyists

(image: Tina Tiller)
(image: Tina Tiller)

A new series from RNZ reveals just how broken parts of the government communications machine are, writes Duncan Greive.

Investigative journalist Guyon Espiner is peeling back the lid on the world of external lobbyists and corporate affairs strategists employed by the public sector. His new series, being published on RNZ this week, is titled ‘Mate, Comrade, Brother’, suggesting a focus on the close historic links between our major political parties and the lead staffers at the small handful of private sector agencies employed to do this work. Yet while that is an important thread to pull, just as bleakly fascinating is the nature and quality of the advice procured – which functions as a window into one granular microcosm of the recent debates about consultants and the public service.

The two entities which form the centrepiece of the first report are Transpower, the state-owned enterprise which operates the national electricity grid and Pharmac, the national drug buying agency. Each operates as a functional monopoly, and procures advice from two of the main providers of political communications strategy. This covers things like backgrounding senior leadership on MPs they’re meeting or suggesting techniques for dealing with tricky public relations scenarios.

Transpower worked with Thompson Lewis, an well-established firm founded by and employing multiple former senior political staffers. They deployed Wayne Eagleson, the longtime chief of staff to prime ministers John Key and Bill English, a highly respected political operative. His CV suggests huge value, which is why it’s so surprising that the advice Espiner quotes is by turns banal and infuriating.

John Key’s chief of staff Wayne Eagleson and campaign manager and MP Steven Joyce, on the evening of National’s election victory in 2014. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The banal part is his profiling of Dunedin MP David Clark. Eagleson is quoted as saying “he had a bad 2020 after being sacked for a couple of silly decisions during the lockdown but the broader issue was that as Health Minister he was at home in Dunedin.” This is indisputably true, and the phrasing admirably arch, but it’s also intel that any New Zealander who watched the 6pm news in 2020 could tell you for free. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the information, nor a lack of need for it – having some background ahead of meetings with MPs is useful, and busy executives might not always have a chance to figure it out for themselves. But it is mystifying that it was considered necessary for it to be outsourced, given that any government communications advisor might have reasonably been expected to either know it off the top of their head, or discover it with a few minutes of basic search engine time. 

A spokesperson for Transpower told The Spinoff that Thompson Lewis were procured during the first Covid lockdown, initially for $50,000 per annum, later reduced to $36,000. They pointed to a review of communications around the grid failure of 9 August 2021 as an example of value the firm brings to Transpower, and that the organisation hassince put many of the recommendations in place”. The review was supplied to The Spinoff and is substantive and manifestly useful, yet it’s unclear why a nine-strong communications team would not be able to manage the kind of basic MP backgrounding and communications strategy advice which Espiner quotes.

Pharmac and ‘a very negative slant’

More troubling is the nature of the advice given around tactics for dealing with the media. Another firm, Draper Cormack, explicitly advised its client Pharmac to “stall” when media approach with inquiries, and consider whether “a statement is better than an interview”. It also showed that Pharmac supplied certain outlets with hugely consequential national news stories well ahead of others, based on their belief that some media, including Today FM’s Rachel Smalley, are “very negatively slanted against Pharmac, with strong implication of incompetence, a lack of caring on Pharmac’s behalf, and a lack of fairness in the system”. 

This is the internal background to the extraordinary public dispute between Pharmac and Today FM, which culminated in MediaWorks being banned from access to the drug funder in 2022, as punishment for a story which turned out to be entirely accurate.

RNZ journalist Guyon Espiner (Photo: Supplied)

Espiner’s reporting suggests Draper Cormack has been intimately involved with this disastrous comms strategy throughout – yet its role has been invisible, as Pharmac is mysteriously absent from its list of clients on the firm’s website.

Treating media’s legitimate inquiry as inherently hostile is indefensible, but sadly common in some parts of the public service. One major government department just last week refused to grant The Spinoff an interview regarding a multi-million dollar communications campaign, instead supplying a statement. There’s a harsh irony in the way some in government are vastly increasing paid media spend while refusing to meaningfully engage with reporting.

This is in part due to a jaundiced view of the institution. Eagleson characterises media as uninformed, saying “they don’t necessarily understand the respective roles of the various industry players. They tend to look for simple explanations even where a situation may be more nuanced.” That can be true – media reports are frequently (sometimes necessarily) reductive. But that is precisely why officials and executives with intricate knowledge of a sector or situation should be made available to brief reporters, rather than starving them of information and access, then blaming the media for misunderstanding an issue. 

A strange use of public money

The real rub here is that all this all comes from the public purse. There is no issue with lobbyists existence – though greater transparency would help – and it’s almost essential for parts of the private sector, but the state paying to lobby itself is particularly grating. The money first flows to communications professionals within state-controlled organisations, then out into a small group firms which flow in and out of key political roles. The advice given which makes the job of journalists – working on the public’s behalf – much harder. The worst part is that many of these in-house communications professionals are very experienced former journalists, part of an army which has left newsrooms hollowed out, recruited by the government, often to work against the interests of their ex-colleagues.

The approach is familiar to anyone working in media. Endlessly-delayed OIAs, one-sentence statements and a general sense that they are trying to exhaust you into moving on. What Espiner’s series has already done is expose the extent to which a small handful of outsourced consultants are paid to endorse that approach, if not actively devise it. 

This is doubly tragic, because when done well communications can often be practised in a way which serves both the public interest and the relevant organisation too. I recently had interactions with Kāinga Ora’s communications team which were truly faultless – fast, informed, attentive and ended with a very illuminating interview with a senior executive and a timely follow-up. For now, this is the exception rather than the rule, a situation which Espiner seems intent on exposing.

When interviewed by his colleague Corin Dann on Morning Report, Espiner said “you assumed that this has happened – but to actually see the entrails of how they organise these things… I think the public needs to know.” He’s right. As journalists, who constantly interact with the government’s communications infrastructure, it’s precisely what you suspected was happening. Anna Fifield, then-editor of the Dominion Post, last year wrote an extraordinary op-ed for Stuff decrying the way communications staff seemed chiefly concerned with delaying and obstructing legitimate enquiry, even on the most humdrum subjects. 

It described a communications industrial complex which seemed to be metastasizing, part of an extraordinary spend on public messaging which dwarfs in scale the total spent on public media of any stripe. The job of communications staff – which in this era is so much more than simply media relations – is a skilled and highly important one, but only if it’s done with the right intentions. Based on Espiner’s reporting, the public interest is far too often subordinate to the narrow interests of the organisation, or a senior leader’s desire to simply avoid engaging with the media at all.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

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