Bluegrass Consulting: Blueblog

Tuesday: 12 April

Social media generating trust: Lucinda Barlow, Google Australia and New Zealand

It should come as no surprise to hear that Google, one of the most potent organisations in the world, has trust as one of its positioning lynchpins…yet in a (business) world still coming to terms with the fact that those defining a brand are more often its stakeholders than the brand itself, this is still close to being revolutionary, especially if it is being effectively put into action, rather than simply being pontificated on.

Lucinda Barlow, Google Australia and New Zealand’s Head of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, put forward this premise at last year’s Frocomm’s New Media Summit. “We all work for and represent brands and brands are all about trust,” Lucinda said. “People have certain expectations of a brand and that’s what we have to portray.”

But are all brands about trust? I don’t think so. Australian Wheat Board? Rio Tinto? Westpac? Not exactly high-performing brands in the trust stakes.

Google are a fascinating entity in many ways, but their confluence of the dimensions of communication, products and societal centrality is one aspect of this. As a result of this it possesses an enormous amount of power:

  • The power over people’s ability to access information (including information being organised in a manner customised to people’s varying ‘niche needs’)
  • The power over people’s means of accessing information
  • The power of influencing government and regulatory regimes.

In summary, this means the company is playing a significant role in shaping society itself.

The power of giving away control

Lucinda (@lucindabarlow) describes Google as having collaboration at its heart and giving up power to its stakeholders. What a breath of fresh air for a public relations professional!

“Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” said Lucinda. “This means giving our users around the world access to the information they want, from the widest variety of sources, wherever they are.”

And it is interesting to note that, despite its competition being, “one click away,” Lucinda said Google’s policy is not to lock people into utilising the products it develops, but to, “allow customers to move their data out of Google’s services easily.

“We have a dedicated engineering team, working across all products, called the ‘Data Liberation Front’ to make this happen. To keep you coming back, we have to keep innovating to create great services that are important to people and change their lives.”

Making it easy to not use Google has a number of implications for a professional communicator:

  • It gives more power to consumers to set the terms of the relationship. In fact, with products like Google Maps, consumers have the power to actually change the parameters of the product itself
  • It is empowering the consumer to be a participant in the brand, not an observer
  • The numerous listening and interactive posts it has in the online environment reflect the way its business model is profoundly influenced by its stakeholders’ knowledge, views and behaviour.

Analogous to this is the approach that Lucinda said Google takes to its stakeholder communication: “We need to be fast, responsive, open and transparent in our communication.”

Eavesdropping for insights

“There is a large and growing audience of people who actively listen to, distribute and publish their opinions online,” said Lucinda. “This gives real power to the vocal minority. According to Nielsen, in Australia 45% of people online publish their opinions specifically about products, services, and brands online and a massive 86% read them. It’s such an influential space.

“When you probe what the most trusted sources of information are, word of mouth comes out tops followed by online…because online is seen as a way to scale ‘word of mouth’ and tap into it en masse.

“And you’re not just about managing what gets said about your brand in order to effect sales directly. It’s also about consumer insight. It’s like being permanently tapped in to the world’s largest focus group. Our users decide what’s popular and what they want to watch. They talk about it. They debate with each other. Those comments are gold. Just ask United Airlines…”

Social responsibility

The power of Google means it has a more profound, socially pervasive social responsibility than most organisations. Its enormous global reach (i.e. all stratas of virtually all societies) make this more challenging for Google than most, as different societies and their various elements all have differing expectations of organisations.

As long as trust remains central to its business model, however, it has a reliable compass with which to steer itself. Communication, and public relations in particular, is the ideal mechanism to facilitate this journey occurring.

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Tuesday: 08 February

Advice for ‘Real Julia’. Bowl straight at the wicket. Don’t try any fancy tricks

So it took a little while to sort out, but we now know, Labor lost the 2010 election (72 seats to 73) but pulled off a win in the post election negotiations. Despite the ‘win’, 5 months later, Labor still look like losers. And the now infamous ‘Real Julia’ moment, Gillard’s apparent rejection of spin and a risk adverse campaign model, is to blame.

It was a catastrophic and painfully uncomfortable election campaign for Labor, ‘worst in history’ according to prominent Labor identity Graham ‘Richo’ Richardson, with both he and National Secretary Karl Bitar agreeing ‘Real Julia’ was a grave strategic error, in the top three mistakes of the election.

“Labor ran the worst campaign in history. No doubt about that. When Julia Gillard said this was the real Julia, no, this wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was planned; it was thought to be clever. It wasn’t. It was just plain dumb.” (Graham Richardson)

A founding rule of spin is don’t declare what you are not. Such as Nixon’s famous I’m not a crook. As everyone then thinks, that’s exactly what you are.  In the same way, saying I am the ‘real Julia’, leads everyone to believe you ‘aren’t', or if you are now, you weren’t then. As Bitar said, “(it) was not really about a real Julia and a fake Julia. Unfortunately, that’s the way it came across”.

Statements of this nature, also feed the media beast, providing great material for headlines and analysis.  Mostly sceptical and unfavourable - to be expected.  You don’t have to look further than Four Corners’ first program for 2011, “The Real Julia?”, and this introductory statement “…one of the most remarkable moments was watching Julia Gillard as Prime Minister in an election campaign struggling to explain who she was, having to reassure us she was real, not manufactured”; to see this political hangover continues to hurt.

As this blog goes on to describe, the explanation for why ‘Real Julia’ failed and the consequent lesson for political communicators, is: be careful of saying what you are and aren’t. If you do, make sure you have an agenda, ‘the filling’, action and conviction, not just an empty statement.

Words just words

The strategic error was when Julia stood up and said I am real, but then failed to explain who that was, and what she stood for. When a leader stands up and says this is who I am, this is about my leadership, they need to follow it up with action,” says online political blog, Pollytics.

Pollytics research shows how former PM, Kevin Rudd’s leadership went up with the Grech affair, because Rudd stood and said, ‘this is about my leadership - this is bullshit’ and went for the jugular. The result, he “destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and was unassailable until he couldn’t get his governance together.”

In comparison, Gillard stood and said ‘this is about my leadership, and I have nothing really to say about it’, the result, an election which delivered a weak government and a hung parliament.

The conviction politician

Till this day we are still asking who is Julia? We know she’s a former lawyer, considered one of ‘Australia’s foremost Parliamentary debaters’, she cares about education and came into politics predominantly to make a difference to opportunity questions“.

One ‘opportunity question’ is industrial relations, and her work in rolling back Work Choices was well executed; but she remains opposed to other ‘opportunity issues’ i.e. same sex marriage, preferring to sit on the fence, proving more ‘consummate politician’ then thinking, feeling, real. She believes in climate change, but established a “Citizen’s Assembly” to consider it, and she’s a republican but won’t lead on the issue.

In the end, much of this debate comes back to an already familiar political notion, that of the ‘conviction politician‘. John Howard is most famous for embodying this. How often did we hear everyday voters say, ‘even if you hated him, at least you knew what he stood for’.

Policy by polling

As outlined in post 1 of this series, the reliance and often incorrect reading of polling, is causing all sorts of problems for politicians, and has seen the apparent end of the conviction politican. As the article ‘Who are you Julia‘ says: “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that if Julia Gillard has an ideology, it comes from the Labor party’s market research company. The ambivalent feelings she publically presents….reflect the mixed feelings through the community”.

Surely, being the country’s ‘leader’ can’t simply mean ‘following’ the people. Conviction, real or fake, is essential for a politician.  As illustrated by an adviser’s comment to the former leader of the National Party New Zealand; the secret to success is sincerity and conviction. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

Summary - the future is Bligh

The first blog on this topic, written prior to the election, focussed on the need to evolve the art of spinning, believing it increasingly out of date, so much so it could lose Labor the election.  It looked at Gillard’s public rejection of this ‘traditional campaign model’ including ‘real Julia’, and posed whether this would work.

In finalising this series, we recognise attempts being made to evolve spinning techniques, to strive for honest communication, i.e. ‘Real Julia’. But when only half thoughts, lacking action and content (essential to effective political communication) they fail. Proving in the end, to still be spin. And worst still, ineffective spin which backfires.  Gillard need heed the advice of this cricket fan, bowl straight at the wicket. Don’t try any fancy tricks.”

However, not all is lost! In recent weeks, we have witnessed political communication at its best. Some even call it a new template. It is indeed the evolution this blogger believes not only more integrious, and for those at-any-cost, hard head spinners, more effective.

According to David Penberthy, this new template is: “Based around honesty, decisiveness and plain speech. It’s been based around saying what government can do, and what it cannot do.” We speak of none other than Premier Anna Bligh, and her handling of the devastating floods in Queensland.

Social media was quickly followed by the mainstream in reporting the contrast between the two leaders in their ability to communicate appropriately throughout the disaster, boosting one’s leadership, and hurting another’s.

No prizes for picking the winner. Gillard, watch and learn. For ‘real’!

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Friday: 03 December

M&A Communications – the most important after thought

It’s 3am. Lawyers and advisors of a takeover target sit squashed in a downtown hotel suite, empty coke cans and coffee mugs litter the room while reams of paper are poured over. Across the hall in a bigger suite the acquirer’s team of lawyers and advisors check emails and wait for phone calls from across the hall for more documentation. This is the mergers and acquisition (M&A) process as described by a bank lawyer friend of mine.

Call it what you will - a friendly takeover, synergy or absorption, this is one of the most exciting areas in business. M&A experienced a massive slump as a result of the global financial crisis when the CFOs clung onto their balance sheets like castaways on a raft. Now as we move into the “new normal” (thank you McKinsey &Co) where money is more expensive but more available, M&A is again on the rise - and a good a communications strategy around the practice can mean short and sharp success.

There have been many cases where poor communications on a merger has led to its near collapse or value depreciation. Financial journalist Steve Lipin uses the examples of Hewlett-Packard’s acquisition of Compaq, Conseco’s acquisition of Green Tree Financial Corp. and Newell’s takeover of Rubbermaid Inc as examples earlier this decade.

These companies’ employees and shareholders experienced long periods of uncertainty with minimal communication from management, executives or the board. They filled the void by circulating rumours and myths about the situation, which either led to the transaction’s collapse or dramatically reduced the acquirer and takeover target’s value. The above organisations relied on their lawyers and advisors to contract out communications. No offense to lawyers but they are best to stick to the detail and shouldn’t be concerned with top line positioning and key messaging.

It is absolutely vital that both the acquirer and takeover target have in place a co-ordinated communications plan months before any announcement to help fill the vacuum and begin to influence the decision makers.

Treat it like a political campaign. You are dependent on a group of stakeholders on your survival - and if you don’t convince them that your way is the right way you will be forced to abort your mission.

At the centre of the campaign are a few must haves:

1.     Do you have a credible story, with clear targets, that can be communicated, accomplished and monitored, over time, by the acquirer and investors?

2.     Does your story remove uncertainty and give direction to the organization so that employees can effectively deliver?

3.     Does your story link post-merger integration plans to the economics of the transaction?

(Thanks again to Steve Lipin for the checklist)

Takeover targets want to know one thing: what is in it for them? Will my job be safe? Can I get a pay out? Will my shares go up or down?

A communications plan will help executives and the board answer these questions from stakeholders. They will uncover issues that are usually an afterthought in the heat of due diligence but are typically the ones that can make or break a merger. These issues usually come from concerns from employees and shareholders so they must be top priority in any communications planning. And don’t forget, most employees are shareholders too!

M&A communications is a beast all onto its own. It can be aggressive or subtle, yet always highly strategic. Getting good advice and a good plan early is paramount for any successful transaction.

Heather Gilmore

Heather is a communications consultant, former Senior Manager at Westpac and media advisor to a NSW Premier and Treasurer. She is also an Associate Account Director with Bluegrass Consulting. Heather’s blog is at

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Thursday: 14 October

If you believe you control the message, you no longer understand what is going on: The case for politicians using social media (part 3)

Part 3 of a 4 part series which uses Julia Gillard and the recent Federal Election to examine whether spin techniques developed for the 20th century media model are now outdated and ineffective in the 21st century.

This post picks up from previous discussions on how a lack of trust virtually makes political communication ineffective. It examines how ‘controlling the message’ is the essence of 20th century spin and the big mistake being made by communicators is thinking this remains the core of 21st century spinning.

Could social media help build trust?

Old spin controlled the government-citizen relationship by managing what went into the media, thus shaping the environment in which people made political choices.

The new media landscape, however, provides government the opportunity to cut out the media and talk to the citizen directly. This ‘voter-centred social networking’ was fundamental to Obama’s ability to win office.

The ‘corruption of communication’ encouraged these new forms of communication. Social media is defined as ‘media for social interaction’ and sees the creation and exchange of user-generated content, allowing citizen voices to be heard. By its very nature, it represents a greater equality in communication mediums, as opposed to mainstream media.

By choosing to engage in this space, government can be seen to be respecting the nature of the space, that every voice can be heard, and most definitively, that you don’t control it.  This inspires an authenticity that can also inspire trust.

From a purely strategic perspective, spinners should at least understand that social media offers a very effective way of more directly connecting with and influencing the constituency as well as building consensus through government-to-people, people-to-government and even people-to-people communication.

It may just be that a side effect to this 21st century campaigning is that it also provides an opportunity for politicians to gain back the most valuable of political capital, trust. And, perhaps success in the new media space, may encourage new success as well as rejuvenated techniques in the traditional media space.

Social media in the 21st century - what spin was for the 20th century

Using social media in political campaigning is the most obvious sign spin is evolving to fit the media market of the 21st century. Obama used these tools to help him win office, Clinton didn’t and lost.

Having taken that on board the Secretary of State is now such an advocate she is referred to as the “godmother of 21st century statecraft”, the program at the forefront of the Administration’s moves to experiment with and adopt new ways to interact with the public including YouTube and text messaging.

See the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking about 21st century statecraft on YouTube here.

Gaining control means losing control

Maybe the ‘real Julia’ gets it, through her apparent rejection of the “very risk averse standard campaign model” in the midst of the recent election and her acknowledgment then, that “…people are right to worry that modern campaigning is too managed and too tightly scripted”.

Perhaps she also understands “the 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak”, wise words spoken by Jared Cohen in the NY Times article Digital Diplomacy. Cohen along with Alec Ross heads up 21st century statecraft.

Finally, I’ll finish with these wise words in the same NY Times article, where Clay Shirky, a New York University professor says on the issue of whether or not politicians should engage in social media: “the loss of control you fear is already in the past. You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what is going on.”

The final and fourth post will examine Ms Gillard’s apparent rejection of the “very risk adverse standard campaign model” in the context of the election result.

Ruci Fixter

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Friday: 10 September

A new Australian recipe? Democracy crumble with ego and power cream

After endless negotiations Julia Gillard has finally been elected Australian Prime Minister. The Australian political ocean is apparently calm, but for how long?

The answer to this question may be partially found depending on whether Australian politicians are going to remember two important outcomes of the elections.

The fortunate memory loss illness of politicians

Even if it is common knowledge that politicians do not always keep their promises, they should at least try to keep their most important ones.

For instance, in his 2007 campaign, Kevin Rudd promised that he would lead a strong green policy. However, after his election, the promised policy turned out to be a real failure.

If politicians may suffer from chronic memory loss in post-election periods, voters do not and end up making politicians pay for their fortunate lack of memory.

This is surely what happened during the last election and probably represents one of the main reasons why the Labor lost so many votes. Indeed, a 2.1% national swing occurred during the previous elections. To drive a point home, a poll by the Climate Institute since the August 21 election revealed that nearly 33% of Green voters acknowledged that their vote would have gone to the Labor if it had not postponed its emissions trading scheme.

By not keeping its promise, the Labor clearly shot itself in the foot. Unfortunately, it was not the only time.

Politics’ inherent gangrene: ego and power

Indeed, Julia Gillard’s “coup” in becoming Prime Minister last June was the testimony of major conflicts within the Labor Party. The existence of internal conflicts was confirmed during the negotiations period when a former national president described the atmosphere in the Labor Party as “poisonous”, and calling for the eviction of national secretary Karl Bitar.

If this situation appears to be somewhat pathetic, the Australian Labor Party does not seem to be an exception in the international political landscape. The French Socialist Party also suffered from this inherent gangrene: overblown egos and too big an addiction to power accounted for its defeat at the presidential election in 2007. However, it seems that in anticipation of the next French presidential election leaders of the party have learnt their lesson and appear more united than ever.

Ultimately, these two issues have always existed; Australian elections are just the latest example of an always more bitter reality.

The novelty is that the media - sensational ego-makers, but also breakers - are nowadays a mirror to the dark side of politics and stress how unkept promises and over-inflated egos regularly occur in democracies. This is highly worrying because the more the mirror reflects reality, the more it weakens democracy.

Arnaud Eard

Arnaud comes from Paris and gained a MA in International Political Economy at the University of Sheffield. He has been interning at Bluegrass Consulting since May 2010.

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Friday: 27 August

Don’t be a PR pro that gets taken to court

Many people consider that online communication platforms such as YouTube and Facebook provide a light-hearted medium which has little or no legal risks or consequences. This, however, is not the case and if you are a communication professional using these social media platforms to promote a product or issue you need to know about consumer protection laws.

If you aren’t familiar with the relevant laws and you are not compliant (or where you are familiar with those laws and are still not compliant), you may not only find yourself in hot judicial waters, but you are also risking the integrity of your brand, corporate image and your own individual reputation, not to mention the wrath of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), the supervising regulator.


Don’t let PR be misleading or deceptive

Sue Gilchrist, Partner, Freehills, told Frocomm’s 2010 New Media Summit that all online communication amounts to a representation subject to Section 52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) to the same extent as extent as in traditional media:

A corporation shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.

Sue urged communication professionals to remember your (or your client’s or employer’s) “intention is irrelevant”. Although it may seem obvious to you that it is a PR-generated testimonial, or that a blog contains somebody’s personal opinion, “not everyone is savvy” and you could be engaging in a misleading or deceptive communication.

Sue told the conference that if a case does proceed to court, there are a few things the court will consider in determining whether there has been misleading or deceptive conduct, including:

  • the class of persons likely to be misled
  • the standard of intelligence, astuteness or gullibility of this class, otherwise known as the ‘the reasonable person test’.

New media platforms and section 52

The court will also take into account other relevant factors, including the nature of new media formats and their potential audiences. For example, platforms such as YouTube are accessible by a very wide range of people which means that the class of persons who must be misled in relation to activities on such platforms is likely to include people of very different levels of astuteness or gullibility.

Since the court is likely to consider the position of the least astute and most gullible members of this class when determining whether consumers will be or are likely to be misled, activities in new media carry a particular risk of misleading at least some consumers.

It is therefore important to consider the full range of consumers who are likely to come into contact with your new media activities.

However, this is not to say that the emergence of new media has made it more difficult for communication professionals to adhere to section 52. The important thing to remember is that the same consumer protection rules apply to new media as they do to more traditional media. So communication professionals should take the same precautions to avoid misleading consumers in new media.

Indeed, activities on new media platforms may be comparable to national newspaper or TVC campaign in terms of their reach, scope and exposure to consumers of varying levels of astuteness.

Although some communication professionals may see section 52 as an obstacle to their creativity, it is important to remember that section 52 plays an important role in protecting consumers by helping to ensure that consumer-facing activities are not misleading or deceptive. Compliance with this principle will also help build consumer trust in a brand or its products. Your creative talent will be engaged even more in ensuring creativity and compliance.

The courts will generally allow a certain amount of “puffery” and creativity in communication designed to sell a product or promote a brand. Section 52 does not prevent communication professionals focussing on the positives of their brand or product.

What section 52 will do, however, is require that communications are balanced and, so, where communication focus so heavily on the positives that it risks misrepresenting the product and/or creating an overall impression that is potentially misleading, those positives may need to be limited and the negatives specifically disclosed.

What can communication professionals learn from Ian Turpie?

An example of a case which came to the attention of the ACCC was TV personality Ian Turpie’s spruiking of nasal spray for erectile dysfunction for the Advanced Medical Institute (AMI) back in 2004, despite him not suffering from this condition.

In addition to pursuing AMI and Mr Turpie, the ACCC can and will pursue individuals who have knowingly been involved and in this case also pursued the AMI advertising agent that drafted the advertisement. The Court held AMI, Mr Turpie and the advertising agent to have contravened the Trade Practices Act (and awarded costs against both AMI and the agent). The ACCC used this “decision as a warning to advertising agents who play an important role in the preparation and/or publication of advertisements on behalf of their clients.”

Misleading the public can damage your brand and your own reputation

Even if misleading and deceptive conduct does not result in legal action, misleading consumers can damage your brand and your own organisation. An example more specific to new media was the YouTube video of a girl’s romantic quest to find her “man in the jacket”, which turned out to be a company generated video used to promote Witchery’s new men’s line.

This was a campaign that was heavily criticised by the media, which were more than a little annoyed for taking the bait: “If the CEOs of Naked Communications and Witchery think that the media will forgive and forget being lied to, then the biggest joke is on them.”

The public also didn’t seem that impressed with being fooled by a girl whose apparent search for love took her all the way to The Today Show, the hosts asked her if it was a hoax, which she denied.

Witchery and Naked Communications, the agency responsible, are not the first or last to use social media in this way. But the commentary around the issue focused on the lack of remorse, and indeed arrogance, from Witchery and Naked once the deception came to light and this may have contributed to the campaign being received so negatively.

ACCC vs. Google - a world first

The ACCC is currently taking action in what is a world-first against Google Inc for allegedly deceptive conduct related to sponsored links on its websites. The ACCC says that Google claims to rank search results by relevance, but it actually engages in deceptive conduct by selling off the top positions to commercial partners. This case is currently being played out in the Federal Court.

What you need to know to stay out of trouble

In summary, if you want to achieve effective online communication, it pays to follow these basic rules as outlined by Sue:

  • Where a communication is an advertisement, ensure clear disclosure that is it advertising
  • Claims must be based on reliable and current information
  • Take care that the overall impression is not misleading
  • If engaging in comparative advertising:
    • identify the scope and comparison
    • undertake due diligence on the competitors product
    • make sure relevant brands are protected.

Good luck! (And watch your back…)

So, the big question, dear reader, is have YOU been busted for being a naughty PR/public affairs pro? Please, do tell? Or do you have any tales of woe and warning to share? Don’t be shy, we won’t sue!

Ruci Fixter

A full report on Frocomm’s 2010 New Media Summit, featuring leading Australian marketing, PR and social media pros and can be downloaded at Public relations and managing reputation).

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Tuesday: 24 August

When politicians manipulate the sensitive issue of immigration: populist politics is at its best!

In an ideal world, politicians would hold strong and sincere convictions and would debate on concrete issues aiming at improving the life of citizens. In this world, politicians would strive to raise public awareness rather than to sustain ignorance.

Given the way both the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been dealing with the issue of immigration, if this world existed it was a long, long time ago.

In the recent elections, Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided to distinguish herself from her predecessor by shifting from a “big Australia” to a “sustainable Australia”. So far this kind of strategy is understandable: as a newly designated Prime Minister and with little time to convince, it is quite normal that she should try to differentiate her policy from her predecessor’s.

It is however more questionable that she should clearly link immigration policy and population policy, which is a dangerous shortcut that could be harmful to Australia in the long-term.

It does not matter whether it shows opportunism on behalf of the Labor candidate and whether both skilled and unskilled immigration have played their part, in particular in the country’s growth. The shift from a “big Australia” to a “sustainable Australia”, which is backed by almost 75% of Australians, appeared positive to Julia Gillard’s election.

On the other hand, after President Sarkozy’s popularity plumbed the depths in July 2010 (26% of favourable opinion), he gave a very strong speech in Grenoble on 30 July 2010 where he declared nothing less than a “war on crime”, forgetting that the age of prohibition is long gone. In his speech the French President promised legislative reforms to withdraw the French nationality from non-natives criminals.

This unfortunately sounds like Sarkozy’s favourite remedy to unpopular polls; he indeed gave similar speeches on security when he was Interior Minister in order to increase his popularity as a potential candidate for presidency.

Once again, this very negative strategy seems to be working as a poll of 6 August 2010 stresses that 70% of polled agreed with the president in regard to the withdrawal of the French nationality for some non-native criminals when the life of a policeman is threatened.

Apart from being populist and xenophobic, this is just another step in the escalation of a government where the current Interior Minister was condemned after he professed racial insult and where French police imposed brutal treatment of immigrants.

In the end, while Prime Minister Gillard’s communication has not been as ambivalent as Sarkozy’s, the goal remains the same: winning elections. It is a shame that political figures devote more time to discussing sensitive issues in a populist manner rather than engaging in open and constructive debate on what are important issues at many levels. While it is clearly a good means to their end it definitely does not heighten politics.

Arnaud Eard

Arnaud comes from Paris and gained a MA in International Political Economy at the University of Sheffield. He has been interning at Bluegrass Consulting since May 2010.

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Tuesday: 17 August

Moving forward…ditching PR spin (part 2)

This is part 2 of a 4 part series which uses Julia Gillard and the current Federal Election to examine whether spin techniques effectively developed for the 20th century media model are now outdated and ineffective in the 21st century.

Gillard’s declaration she’s “going to discard all of that campaign advice and professional or common wisdom and just go for it” (in regard to “risk averse” election campaign communication) highlights the fact that old spin (controlling information by restricting journalist access, staying ‘on message’, an over-supply of information {e.g. renouncements of announcements} and over emphasising the positive) hasn’t been working.

These spinning techniques, which 10 to 20 years ago were largely a hidden and unknown art, are now a notion so familiar to the public, they no longer work. The extensive criticism and coverage of the much overused ‘moving forward’ slogan is just one example of that.

In addition, Channel 7 reporting political news, with the by-line, ‘cutting through the spin’, is another example of how widely spin it is now ‘accepted’.

You can’t be tricked when you know the tricks.

Nothing new in blaming the media

Much has been written on the role of the media in the challenge for straight forward authentic communication. The 24 hour media cycle, the demand for ‘new’ news, means journalists fail to properly cover policy due to a lack of time, and as Bernard Keane also points out, a lack of specialist skills: “The result is too much cynicism and not enough scepticism.”

Despite politicians and their advisers knowing the media is likely to misrepresent them, “gratifying them” remains the “primary purpose of the professional politician (who acquire) a crippling self-enfeeblement driven by their dependence…”

Keane also explains, and as we all know, it’s in the media’s interest for politics to remain in a “permanent cycle of spin, conflict and commentary, while actual problems are never resolved”. Good news doesn’t sell papers and conflict is essential to a ‘good’ news story.

But this is something spinners have known for a long time! That we haven’t found better ways of dealing with this is positively amateur.

Worse still…we have a major trust deficit

Spin can be defined as a type of propaganda, providing an interpretation of an event or issue to persuade public opinion in favor or against. It is between the two World Wars that spin was really pioneered, with Joseph Goebbels using it to great effect for the Nazis. Post war America refined his approach, with Eisenhower’s Republicans bringing professional propagandists into their inner circle for the first time, ensuring a decisive win.

Later, Bill Clinton and chief spinner James Carvelle mentored Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson/Alastair Campbell as they reinvented the Labour Party. And it is perhaps with Blair that we saw the beginning of the decline of 20th century spin. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former Press Secretary, while still in that role, spoke publically of how this new communication had become a hindrance to good government and had cost them dearly in terms of trust.

“We did make a concerted effort to get a better dialogue with some parts of the media…this was of course about reaching their readers. …but therein lay the seeds of spin. The consequences were greater than we anticipated. People stopped trusting what we had to say.”

A lack of trust virtually makes spin ineffective, as can be seen in the 2005 UK general election. The Government thought services were improving in heath and education. Polling showed the public also thought their schools and hospitals were improving. But they also thought they were lucky and that nationally things were getting worse.

They discounted their own personal experience because it was in agreement with the government line, and they were almost programmed to disbelieve anything the government said. (This example was found in Ivor Gaber’s paper Too much of a good thing: the ‘problem ‘of political communications in a mass media democracy)

Post 1 in this series began to examine the PR spin techniques of the NSW ALP Right and their role in the current campaign, as well as whether the declaration of the ‘Real Julia’ was actually just part of the strategy and part of managing perceptions around Australia’s first female leader and the way in which she took power. It concluded by questioning whether publicly rejecting the”very risk averse standard campaign model” was just more spin…

Post 3 will examine whether social media can help build trust and how the future of spinning lies in losing control. The final and fourth post will examine Ms Gillard’s apparent rejection of the “very risk averse standard campaign model” in the context of the election result.

Ruci Fixter

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Friday: 13 August

Listen up spinners ‘Real Julia’ proves its time to evolve our art

Julia Gillard’s political woes shine the light on the failure of modern day spinners clinging desperately to a political communication technique invented for the 20th century model of mass media. In the 21st century, these techniques are proving increasingly out of date and so dangerously ineffective it could lose Labor an election when spin, ironically, should be key to winning elections…

Standard and well known spin techniques such as the ’seven second grab’, key messages, catchy slogans and carefully controlled media management have all backfired spectacularly for Ms Gillard. All of a sudden, these tricks look very dated prompting her to publicly reject this “very risk averse standard campaign model” and re-introduce herself as the “real Julia” in a desperate search for authenticity.

This move was a somewhat startling acknowledgment that the usual spin simply wasn’t ‘cutting through’. Techniques designed to win were, in fact, conspiring towards losing Labor the election.

Focus groups - unfairly dumping leaders for false infidelity?

So how is it the ALP’s crack campaign team, seasoned professionals whose job it is to know the business inside out, couldn’t predict that this ‘old spin’, on its own, wouldn’t work? They should have been even more aware of the dangers, given the current levels of cynicism around how Julia assumed office.

In fact, one almost wonders if there was even a communication strategy in place to deal with how the electorate may have responded to Rudd’s unprecedented and brutal assassination. Or was it so clever we almost missed it…?

Many people place the bulk of the blame for the campaign’s rocky ride at the feet of NSW Right leader Mark Arbib, who both secured and destroyed Rudd’s leadership. It is not only the role he is believed to have played in convincing Rudd to dump the ETS, a turning point for voters, but the risk averse, poll-centric, NSW Labor Right strategy, that he along with long term friend and campaign director Karl Bitar have continued to push as the best campaign model.

But it appears that the result has been panicky politics driven by focus group research, which has seen leaders dumped like 20-somethings dump lovers over false infidelities. Many argue their use of the focus group results is not accurate or effective.

Former staffer in the Carr and Iemma Governments, Mark Aarons, explains their technique involves targeting the least politically committed voters in marginal seats. Their theory is that “…these people determine who win government and their views should therefore predominate in policy-setting. In a bizarre reversal of conventional political wisdom, leadership is redefined as following such people by pandering to them.”

Aarons’ experience was that this strategy “led the (Iemma) government up a blind alley”, not reflecting mainstream voters who hated the policy idea” (in this instance the Kurnell desalination plant).

However, most say there is little wonder the Arbib-Bitar partnership believe in this model. Arguably it has won them office in NSW since 1995 and, maybe, even the Kevin 07 election. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? But election 2010 seems to have broken the mould. Time will ultimately tell.

Old spin doesn’t work for ‘real Julia’

These campaigns have been largely stage managed spin-fuelled fiestas, and none more than Kevin 07. And as Michael Gawenda points out in Business Spectator, Gillard 2010 is in many ways no more or no less stage managed than Kevin 07 was.

However, what is different is that she has only been PM for six weeks and the way in which Rudd was deposed. Going to the polls seems rushed…standard NSW campaigning?

What is interesting and maybe very clever spin, is this point made by Gawenda:

“Gillard had two major problems coming into this campaign: she had been involved in the assassination of Rudd and she was a woman. Gillard and her advisors, it seems, decided that any sign of aggression, of passion or even vision, would be turned against her - she would be seen as an angry, pitiless, female, political executioner. So for the first two weeks of the campaign she behaved as if she was on Prozac.”

So maybe this strategy was deliberate all along.

Play the standard orchestrated campaign cardboard cut-out; let it look like you are being played by the ‘faceless men’, because anything else would make you look like “an angry, pitiless, female, political executioner”.

And then announce the arrival of ‘real Julia’, who it now looks like has been brave enough to stand up to said men, and indulge the electorate with a soft, approachable and benevolent female leader.

Maybe sexist attitudes towards women in power have been grossly overlooked in how this campaign could and needed to be played.

It might actually be very clever indeed - an all together cleverer ‘new’ spin, a planned emergence of the real Julia as a natural evolution of the Gillard personality.

But then, the long term damage to the Labor party, brought about by the scary power of the faceless men, now emblazoned in the psyche of the electorate, still seems a high price to pay for this approach.

Using Julia Gillard and the current Federal Election as a case study, this is the first in a 4 part series examining whether spin techniques effectively developed for the 20th century media model  are  now outdated and ineffective in the 21st century. Post 2 looks at the ineffectiveness of ‘old spin’, the role of the media, and the trust deficit. Post 3 examines whether social media can help build trust and how the future of spinning lies in losing control. The final and fourth post will examine Ms Gillard’s apparent rejection of the “very risk averse standard campaign model” in the context of the election result.

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Tuesday: 10 August

Here comes Asia – thanks to the GFC

After the subprime crisis inflicted a strong blow to Western economies, the European Union and the United States have been trying to catch their breath and continue to reform their respective financial sector according to their own beliefs.

The validation by US Senate of President Obama’s financial reform is undeniably a great move forward. However more has to be done, in particular on an international scale with the harmonization of reforms of the functioning of the banking system.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) put bank bonuses under the spotlight. Indeed, the latter were responsible for encouraging financial actors - mainly traders - to take highly risky short-term positions that threaten the stability of the entire banking system.

To avoid the international financial system falling like a house of cards once again, both the US and the European Union have decided to take strong contradictory measures.

In essence, the EU intends to introduce by January 2011 measures that should increase the difficulty for bankers to gather bonuses. Moreover, securities - share included - would have to make up 50% of all immediate bonuses.

Meanwhile, the US has opted to put in place directives on top management’s salary and bonuses.

As a result, traders will have to choose between these two systems, and the absence of consensus will keep on curbing the general process of reforming international finance.

While the US and the EU have been trying to find the best way toward recovery, Asia has continued its impressive rise, as if the GFC never happened.

Singapore’s GDP rose by 16% between January and April 2010, and a rise of another 13% to 15% is anticipated for the rest of the year.

As for China, it has been confirming its impressive two-digit pre-GFC economic growth. Despite currently experiencing a slowdown and being forecast to fall to one digit, its growth remains very competitive compared to Western growth estimates.

Moreover, China has ideologically challenged the US and the EU. On the 12 July, a prominent Chinese credit rating agency downgraded the AAA rating of Germany, the US, France and the UK, blaming the “big three” (Moody’s, Fitch, Standard and Poor’s) for their ideological support of Western economies. By taking this step, China has openly contested the hegemony of the “big three”.

It is now obvious that if on the one hand the GFC has demonstrated the huge vanity of the Western world, it has on the other hand accelerated the rise of Asia. To put it into Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s words, “Asia’s time has come.”

Arnaud Eard

Arnaud comes from Paris and gained a MA in International Political Economy at the University of Sheffield. He has been interning at Bluegrass Consulting since May 2010.

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