Newsroom, Auckland, April 8, 2018
One of the country’s most high-powered newsrooms needs to start getting its employer’s story into the news cycle and out to the public, and fast.
The Government newsroom is a team of around 35 press secretaries assembled in the Beehive from the ranks of some of the country’s leading journalists and communicators – people experienced in politics, business, the press gallery and social advocacy.
Think back to the end of January when the Jacinda Ardern team marked 100 days in power.
Its achievements were legion, its working groups numerous and its boxes well and truly ticked in public.
Reactive, not strategic
In between times, the government communications effort seemed too reactive and not strategic enough.
By March, the Labour-led coalition saw its overarching narrative of new, progressive social priorities knocked from the home pages, front pages and tops of bulletins as political bushfire after political omnishambles over-ran the new administration’s message of reform.
Political life comes at you quickly. Feather dusters Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau probably can’t remember when they were once strutting roosters.
Here, while things were going south in March, ministerial kitchen cabinets, chiefs of staffs, political strategists and others would have been searching for ways to change the debate, get on the front foot, sell the government’s story and dominate the news cycle.
It is here the Government’s newsroom should come into its own.
It is a different team from that which served the Key and English governments, which also had considerable journalistic and public relations firepower to sell messages.
When governments change, the messengers are routinely shot, and a new group considered neutral or favourable to the incoming administration is installed.
Knowledge is power and choosing when and how to make information public gives any Beehive team a holy advantage over the media and the government’s political opponents.
In this context, the move after just five months of Ardern’s Chief Press Secretary Mike Jaspers to a back-room role as a ‘Chief Strategic Advisor’ speaks volumes.
Someone has to step off the political travellator and think hard about where the government’s story is heading. Jaspers move mirrors that of Key’s Chief Press Secretary Kevin Taylor, albeit at a far earlier point in the government’s life.
The PM’s chief of staff, Mike Munro, was late joining the administration while recovering from illness but is also a former Clark government Chief Press Secretary and Press Gallery Political Editor.
Seeking the initiative
After the mensis horribilis of March, it will be no coincidence that Ardern is trying to rediscover her populist touch.
The past 10 days have seen images of Ardern and Housing Minister Phil Twyford launching the big Kiwibuild project at Mt Albert, a smiling Prime Minister hosting children at Premier House for Easter eggs, a positively glowing feature story on the Stuff.co.nz website of a journalist’s two days spent with Ardern, a set-piece prime ministerial interview with the Guardian website – and finally the big policy announcement on Tuesday (April 3) of the changes to transport priorities and funding.
It will have irritated the communications strategists to have seen a random International Transport Forum report floating cuts to the speed limit to 70km/h on rural roads getting publicity on the day of the serious and heavyweight Draft Government Policy Statement on transport. That speed limit issue is allied to the Government’s road safety goal but when coupled with talk of an increase in petrol tax of between 9 cents and 12 cents a litre over three years on top of Aucklanders’ 10 cents a litre regional fuel tax, it did muddy the waters.
The Prime Minister seemed annoyed by this conflation on one of her morning television interviews and Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne-Genter had to distance the forum’s report from the government’s proposals.
But a big policy announcement does garner big media coverage, particularly on an issue which touches so many in both cities and the regions.
Refining the messages so the public take from these announcements is what the government wants them to focus on and remember is the art of the Beehive newsroom.
Yet the Transport Policy announcement has been overwhelmed by talk of the combined petrol tax increase – partly because the Prime Minister and Transport Minister specified the 9 to 12 cent excise increase over three years instead of treating it as simply a continuation of the regular increments National imposed during its nine years in power.
Completing the Team
The Labour-led government has almost finished assembling its newsroom team.
Jaspers’ job has been advertised so another big name could yet sign-up.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson has just welcomed former Stuff Business Editor Ellen Read as the senior of his two press secretaries, with Alex Tarrant who was in the press gallery for Interest.co.nz.
Also, on the Ardern team since the government was formed in October is former magazine and newspaper journalist Julie Jacobson and two other press secretaries.
Vernon Small, the erudite former National Affairs Editor and political commentator for the Dominion-Post and Stuff, now works for the Minister of Economic Development, David Parker.
Old hands on second or third tours of duty include Kathryn Street, (a former private radio gallery reporter who worked for Clark, now Police Minister Stuart Nash’s Press Secretary), Stephen Parker (a former TV3 Political Editor who once worked for Labour’s Bob Tizard has drawn the short straw in going across from MFAT to be Winston Peters’ Press Aide), Chris Harrington (a former Television Current Affairs man now working for Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri), Richard Ninness (a former political journalist who also worked for National’s Bill Birch and now with NZ First’s Tracey Martin), and Julian Robins (a former RNZ Political Reporter who worked for David Shearer now one of two press secretaries for Health Minister David Clark).
There are ‘holdovers’ as they say in Washington between the two Beehive newsrooms – Georgina Stylianou, a former Press and Stuff Reporter who worked for Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee and is now Press Secretary for NZ First Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones, Parker, and former RNZ journalist Gay Cavill who is working for Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran.
The list goes on. Former Dominion Post and Herald on Sunday journalist and Green Party Chief Press Secretary Leah Haines is on Ardern’s press staff and Britton Broun, a former Stuff Reporter is working for the Minister of Crown Maori Relations, Kelvin Davis after a stint at MBIE.
It is a substantial list, both in total number (35) and experience and capability.
Once it is coordinated and deployed to be coming up with and placing stories about the government’s policies and achievements it could start to shift perceptions of Labour and its allies.
The transition, summer holidays, temporary Chief of Staff at the PM’s office, and Jacindamania’s glow through January with the announcement of her pregnancy and the public relations successes at Waitangi in early February, might have meant the Beehive newsroom was not fully engaged and the communications strategy not yet firing by March.
Any new government has a raft of policies to develop and implement. Ministers worth their salaries know they are political salespeople as well as guests in the public’s limousines.
The working groups have been announced but the direct reforms and initiatives go on.
It will never be a straight line, steady-as-she-goes kind of task for the media team.
Journalists still in the press gallery and beyond will look to get behind the set-pieces and the spin, to reveal uncomfortable truths and disclose information before the planning whiteboards have it scheduled for release.
Events – and personal and political flaws among members of the Cabinet and governing parties – will also conspire to disrupt the best laid plans of the Beehive team.
Identifying positive not negative key messages and finding ways to hammer them home – absent from this week’s transport policy launch – and having a detailed plan using media opportunities relating to as many parts of the country as possible will be required.
Step up, Mike Munro and Mike Jaspers.
Tim Murphy is the Co-Founder of Newsroom and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the New Zealand Herald. Newsroom is an independent, New Zealand-based news and current affairs site, powered by the generosity of people who support its mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism. Indian Newslink has published the above Report and Picture under a Special Agreement with www.newsroom.co.nz
Photo Caption: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern