PR spending spins out of control

Sep 25, 2004

Dioxin – it’s the stuff of public relations nightmares. So when a complex, scientific study of dioxin in the blood of 24 current and former New Plymouth residents was ready for release recently, it was handled particularly carefully by the bureaucrats.

The ESR study followed years of complaints by neighbours of the former Ivon Watkins-Dow plant at Paritutu that made 2,4,5-T herbicide until 1987 and years of official denials that anything was wrong.

Health Ministry communications manager Peter Abernethy says officials spent a fortnight working out a plan to communicate the study. Participants had to be told the results before the media, so timing was important.

It was decided participants would be told on a Thursday morning, followed by a community meeting and finally a press conference in town at 3pm. But timing for the media was also important, says Abernethy. Reporters had to interpret complex information and then produce bulletins or write stories for the next morning’s papers.

It was also decided a group of officials would go to New Plymouth to front the meetings and press conference.

Abernethy acknowledges how important the handling of the study was. “This was the first time that there had been a result which came back to show that something had happened.”

Was this an example of Government “spin” to put the best light on a controversial subject or just careful management of a sensitive issue?

“Spin” is a word governments hate and political opponents use with glee. But regardless of the suspicion it attracts there is no doubt that more work and money is going to practitioners of the art of getting the Government message across.

Figures obtained by the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act reveal just how much hiring and spending on public relations and communications staff has gone on since Labour came to power in 1999.

The number of PR staff in more than 40 Government departments and agencies has increased 48 per cent – from 197.3 full-time equivalents in 1999-2000 to 293 in 2003-04.

However the figures exclude another 41.5 staff employed at the Ministry of Social Development, NZ Trade and Enterprise and Tertiary Education Commission – as the three agencies were established after 1999.

Including them puts the total Government PR muster now at about 330 staff, 31 of whom are Beehive press secretaries.

Unsurprisingly given such an increase, PR spending has risen by 51 per cent, from $29.3 million in 2000-01 (the first year the big-spending ACC could supply its PR budget figures) to $44.3 million in 2003-04. Even these figures are conservative, as many agencies couldn’t produce salary figures in their PR expenditure.

Use of consultants has also risen sharply – up 282 per cent from 34 in 1999 to 130 last year. Total spending on consultants has increased from about $1.6 million in 1999-2000 to $8.2 million in 2003-04.

Some departments justified the increases by pointing to rising workloads and new functions. Inland Revenue pointed out its communications spending represented just 0.17 per cent of its $402 million budget in 2004.

National is seizing on the increase as ammunition in its campaign to highlight what it says is an increasingly bloated public service. But questions are also being asked about whether the public service’s role in managing issues for its political masters has gone too far.

Wellington investigative author Nicky Hager says the increases uncovered by the Weekend Herald are the direct result of a politicisation of the public service that started in the 1980s.

“Not all Government communications work is spin-doctoring and manipulating, but departments nowadays are much more under the control of an individual minister.

“That means when you add communications staff it’s actually their job to save the minister from embarrassment, stall for time, or keep things secret the minister asks them to keep secret.”

Besides the Corngate affair, which he wrote about in 2002 (see sidebar), Hager says a classic example of control is in defence. In the past five years the Defence Force has had more deployments overseas than at any time going back to Vietnam, yet Hager says few stories have been produced by the media that have not been strictly controlled and organised by military PR staff.

And Hager says the Government is getting more secretive. “If you can’t independently find out what the Government’s doing and you have to find out through the PR people – that gives you immense control.”

He points out while there’s been a big increase in PR staff, there’s been no corresponding move to increase freedom of access to information.

State Services Minister Trevor Mallard rubbishes Hager’s claims and says increases in communications resources actually reflect a commitment to more transparent Government. “We are definitely a more active Government, across a wide number of agencies and there’s a lot more interest in it from members of the public and from journalists, especially with the Official Information Act.”

Mallard says ministers don’t tell their departments to hire communications staff, but even without the Official Information Act there are moral and legal obligations to supply information, and departments hire people to do that work.

However, he says there’s a big difference between communications and public relations/spin. He also rejects Hager’s claim communications staff are hired to manage political risks for their ministers.

“I think I have met the communications manager for the Ministry of Education once in five years, and I’ve never spoken to her outside that one meeting. So the idea she’s under direct control is just nonsense.”

Mallard says he wants only no surprises from his department. “If it’s going to be on the front page of the Herald, I would like to find out about it no later than the journalist receiving the information.”

In July, National finance spokesman John Key released figures on the number of policy analysts employed by the Government, showing it had jumped 30 per cent in three years. Total public service staffing increased 12 per cent between 2000 and June 30, 2003.

The PR staffing and spending increases simply confirm to Key the public service is becoming bloated. “It’s basically a wholesale, across-the-board spending spree,” he says, similar to one that occurred in Britain under Tony Blair’s administration, which is now sacking about 100,000 Government workers.

National MP Murray McCully, a former public relations consultant, is astonished by the PR “blowout”, saying it could not be explained simply by an increase in bona fide communications work within the public service.

“It reflects an overall increase in the size of the public service – although this is vastly greater as a percentage of growth. Clearly taxpayers are picking up the tab for a very sophisticated and extravagant information machine. This is the Government propaganda machine on steroids.”

McCully says the Government has obviously decided that boosting in-house staffing would attract less criticism than hiring consultants. But he’s also astounded at the Labour Department’s extensive use of consultants – 38 in the past year alone and 21 in the year before that.

The department has found itself in the middle of PR disasters during that time – for example the “Lying in Unison” scandal at the Immigration Service and the now-defunct Community Employment Group’s hip-hop grant.

The department has been restructured into three new divisions and the employment group was axed this week. It also has a new communications manager, Richard Ninness, but he believes the number of consultants hired in the past has had little to do with the department’s PR problems.

Consultants were hired because of the extra workload in communicating major legislative changes, such as those affecting employment and immigration law, he says.

On the record, Government agency PR staff are careful what they say, but off the record they defend their work. One senior PR person says much of the increase in hiring over the past five years has been because Labour put the hard word on chief executives early on that use of consultants should be minimised. “I remember the PR companies being very worried about that,” he says. In line with the trend towards a more corporatised public service, departments have hired more in-house PR resources.

Departments are often targets of political fire, he says, and chief executives are far more concerned about the reputations of their departments than they used to be.

Another experienced public service PR worker is blunter: “Departments only need people like me because they are subject to scrutiny – so it’s a symptom of health rather than ill-health.”

He says journalists write “hate stories” about PR people because they are envious of higher pay. But reporters also ignore the job PR staff do behind the scenes in fighting the bureaucratic instinct to say nothing when the heat goes on. “Very often people like me are the only reason you [the media] get anything at all.”

The amount spent on PR is trivial compared with total Government spending, he says. “We spend more on photocopying. Ask how much we do on building maintenance and the sum would be gigantic – but it won’t be deemed sexy.”

Such arguments don’t impress politicians of the right who have the burgeoning size of the public sector firmly in their gunsights.

Ask McCully what’s wrong with Government agencies managing risky issues, and he answers with a question: what is it legitimate for taxpayers to fund as opposed to political parties?

“The second question is, are you asking public servants to undertake roles that are in the nature of political management?

“We have seen a massive blowout in the PR budgets, which can only be explained as the Government being prepared to employ people in tasks that it did not used to engage them in. In other words, this is not genuine Government information dissemination.

“That has got to have a corrosive effect on the public service. In the last five years there’s been a blurring of that line.”

Under a National Government, PR jobs would be in danger, McCully warns. “I personally see the need for significant downsizing.”

But both Mallard and Hager are scathing of McCully, citing him as being behind a centralised committee during the last National regime which controlled all releases of information under the Official Information Act.

And Mallard says McCully was also heavily involved in the “enormous sell” of Ruth Richardson’s 1991 Mother of all Budgets. “They got the PR consultants in and they were telling Jim Bolger to trim his nasal hair. Our Government would never do something like that – that is the difference between openness and spin.”

Wellington public policy consultant and lobbyist Barrie Saunders, a former journalist and press secretary, doubts Mallard’s claim that having more PR people means the public sector is more open. “Openness has got nothing to do with the number of public relations people you’ve got. It’s about a mindset.

“The fact that they employ more PR people is because they wish to influence the messages. If you are 100 per cent open you might say you actually don’t need any PR people at all – you just tell the receptionist where to direct the calls.”

But for all that, Saunders believes Labour has been no different to National in trying to control information. And he says governments are now more open than they were in the 1970s thanks to the Official Information Act.

“I think New Zealand has actually got an extraordinarily open Government for people to deal with – and that’s thanks to the Official Information Act.”

He says there are limits to how much the public and media can be influenced before the truth comes out – and even the keenest spinning politicians know it.

By KEVIN TAYLOR | nzherald.co.nz  | Sep 25, 2004
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