PUBLIC RELATIONS DOUBLE MURDER! MESSENGER & MESSAGE DEAD

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Yesterday’s stunning declarations by Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, withdrawing his support for the Australian government’s Intergenerational Report (IGR), is an act of self-immolation on a level rarely seen in Australian public discourse.  For readers unfamiliar with the story so far, here is a brief summary.

1. Aiming to communicate the rationalisation behind proposed (but not yet passed) budgetary cuts revealed in the 2014 budget, and expected to again be central to the 2015 budget due in May, Treasury released the IGR on March 5.  The IGR featured costed analyses of the Australian economy in 2055 predicated on three scenarios: (1) a continuation of budgetary expenditure at the levels supported by the Labor government when it left office in 2013; (2) the passing of new policies proposed in the 2014 budget (i.e. those which remain locked in the Australian Senate); and (3) a sort of Goldilocks scenario which assumes the passing of some of the 2014 budget measures but not all, presumably designed to set the stage for next month’s 2015 budget which will be framed as the compromise we have to have.

2. The three scenarios presented in the IGR were widely criticised as unrealistic as each one assumed uninterrupted continuance for 40 years.  For example, scenario #1 suggests the massive cost blowouts which would occur under Labor’s 2013 expenditures would be allowed to continue until 2055 despite the obvious threat to the economy such an approach would pose each and every year until 2055.  Likewise, for scenario #2 to become reality the Australian public would be expected to live through 40 years of the severe budget measures proposed in 2014, presumably so our grandchildren can enjoy the benefits of a massive surplus in 2055.  That surplus is predicated only on revenues which we can forecast today, an assumption which suggests our economy will create no additional growth drivers for 40 years!

3. With such fuzzy logic it is little wonder the IGR generated so much criticism.  Enter the PR spin doctors.  Asked to cultivate reasoned public discourse about the future of the Australian economy a coalition of PR, research and advertising firms created a campaign using well-known science guru Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki as spokesperson.

The research firm involved conducted focus groups and polling of 1200 people to aid the strategy development behind the campaign.  One suspects the selection of Dr. Karl came as a result of that polling for it would come as no surprise if focus group research found Dr. Karl to be considered intelligent, rationale, non-partisan, trusted, etc.  A scientific voice to push through the politics.

Where the strategy failed and where Dr. Karl has failed the strategy, is that the IGR has no credibility as a scientific document as the summary above explains.  Paying a scientist to speak in favour of the IGR will not convince the public that the IGR has credibility as a work of scientific research, a fact Dr. Karl is now beginning to realise.  His stunning admission that he only participated in the campaign for the money and that he failed to do his own scientific due diligence in analysing the IGR before publicly supporting it has destroyed his credibility whilst further damaging the credibility of the IGR and the government.

A much bigger issue lies at the core of the Dr. Karl fiasco – the credibility of science and academia.  The purchasing of ‘scientific endorsement’ is not new to an increasingly informed and interconnected public.  We’ve seen it in the climate skepticism strategy financed by big oil.  We’ve seen it in the disgraced academia who failed to declare conflicts of interest when providing their own version of ‘cash for comment’ as voices of academic/ scientific reason and impartiality when they publicly supported key economic regulatory reforms favorable to large US financial institutions prior to the Global Financial Crisis.

The founder of a global food and beverage company and self-made millionaire once told me that money is trust.  I wonder how much Dr. Karl believed his trust to be worth before he agreed to support assertions arrived at without proper scientific diligence.  I suspect he will be forming the view that trust should remain priceless.

BUSINESS & POLITICS: People over politics where infrastructure is concerned

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A really interesting article today by Alan Kohler on the politicization of infrastructure projects in Australia and the broader region. In Australia, our inherited Westminster system of government, increasingly influenced by cashed up lobby groups, can hold the nation to ransom by putting needed infrastructure projects in stasis to protect minority interests.  The Westminster system is very easy to influence by lobbyists tapping the ‘not in my backyard’ reflex wherever major projects cover constituencies of strategic political interest, invariably consigning such projects to the too hard basket. Sadly, it’s not the projects that are too hard, it’s the politics.

One example which former prime minister John Howard liked was the national water grid, based on The Bradfield Scheme.  Bradfield’s idea was to build a massive network of irrigation channels and pipes to get excess water in the north to much drier lands in southern and central areas.  In addition to irrigating these areas with regular water supplies, the Bradfield system would double as a hydro-electric power generator to inland townships and communities.

The Bradfield scheme is a simple idea built on common sense logic.  The northern parts of the country experience annual, bankable monsoon rains while the southern and central areas experience regular, albeit less consistent, periods of drought.  Ask any resident of Toowoomba, Roma, Dalby, et al about water problems in their towns, then compare those stories to the recent experiences of residents in towns like Bundarra and Eurobadalla which received money under the Federal government’s ‘exceptional circumstances’ drought support fund until 2012.

In all, A$ 4.5 billion was provided to communities suffering through drought between 2001 and 2012.  A$ 4.5 billion would not come close to funding Bradfield’s idea to completion, but the idea is worthy of serious consideration.  Consider the environmental benefits for one.

Decades of clear-felling on the eastern Queensland coast has meant much more of the monsoon freshwater ends up in the Barrier Reef bleaching the coral and threatening marine habitats.  Consider too the cost savings to flood relief, clean up and insurance an end to regular flooding in Queensland would mean to the country’s finances.  Then consider the economic benefits of growing our regular, bankable arable lands in southern and central areas, a hugely important opportunity as we aim position the country as Asia’s breadbasket for the 21st century.

So how much would it cost to build Bradfield’s dream?  Hard to say exactly and few in favour of the idea have the political capital necessary to fund a serious costing. However, a potential benchmark exists in South Korea where a similar project was completed in 2011.

The Four Rivers project, designed to revitalise South Korea’s four major rivers – the Han, Guem, Nakdong and Yongsan, includes development projects on the rivers’ 14 tributaries and revitalisation of smaller-sized streams within broader environs.  The objectives of the project were to sure up fresh water resources, implement comprehensive flood control measures, improve water quality for wildlife and restore river ecosystems, create new multipurpose spaces for local residents, and encourage regional development centered around the river systems.  More than 929 km of streams and rivers were restored as part of the project, with a follow-up operation planned to restore more than 10,000 km of local streams.  More than 35 riparian wetlands have also been reconstructed as part of the plan.

With a price tag of around A$ 22 billion the Four Rivers project is expected to directly result in over 340,000 new jobs in South Korea.  In higher-cost Australia, where the distances required to deliver the Banfield scheme are considerably larger, a price tag of around A$ 80-100 billion is probably a realistic ball park.

Now, try to image a project like the Bradfield scheme happening in Australia.  Difficult isn’t it?  In the current political climate we seem incapable of putting the national interest ahead of the local, the state, the political, the tribal.  This is despite the fact that credit has never been cheaper and our debt to GDP is low by international standards.  In short, the window for nation-building projects has never more open than it is today.

In Alan Kohler’s article he points to China’s creation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as an initiative designed partly to serve broader geopolitical goals by cutting out the US from major development projects in the region.  Say what you like about this goal, at least the Chinese are linking it to ‘development’, and with this one expects, regional prosperity.  This is an example of majority needs trumping those of minorities and if the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) gets to crow about the fruits of it’s idea at the UN or elsewhere, I for one will toast their success.

Like the Three Gorges damn project, the AIIB is a stark illustration of what political capital looks like.  It’s far more valuable than any paper currency and sadly, in western democracies like Australia, in very short supply.

PUBLIC RELATIONS: Don’t be captive to the agenda – control it!

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A fascinating article in Harvard Business Review today about top CEOs use of social tools for communication and data analysis. The article details how top CEOs are using internal digital platforms to better share wisdom and creativity among teams, and to encourage greater ownership in and motivation for the company.

In the decentralised corporate model digital enables precise, real-time influence and reinforcement by CEOs, as well as collaboration/ influence by and among rank and file employees, of the organisation’s common purpose, vision, mission, covenants, etc. As a two-way communication tool, social facilitates co-creation of the internal organisational agenda in a way which no amount of town hall meetings or executive retreats can.

Turn this analysis of internal digital communications towards external communications and you inevitably arrive at a conversation about branded content which, when strategically invested for the long term, allows the organisation to similarly shape its agenda, although in this case, among external stakeholders and constituents.

Little wonder then that branded content is the new frontier corporates and agencies alike are clamoring to get a piece of. I recall the explosion of social media ten years ago and the debate around which communications practice should lead the design and execution of communications in social media platforms which were emerging then. Should it be advertising or PR? The same debate is now on in earnest with regards branded content.

I suggest branded content could finally be a place where PR and advertising content might peacefully coexist. I welcome any thoughts and contributions from PR/comms pros and business leaders …

The School of Life

During my time in Southeast Asia I discovered The School of Life, an initiative originally put together by a collective of philosophers headed by Alain De Botton, of whom I am a long time fan.

A recurring theme of De Botton’s work has been to modernise  philosophy by relating it more to the everyday wants, needs and issues people face in the world.  This idea has been beautifully realised in The School of Life which is a celebration, not only of historical philosophy and wisdom, but of how that knowledge relates to the modern world.

The School of Life also puts this wisdom into modern discourses delivered through hosted breakfasts, larger ‘Ted-style’ events, public lectures and engagement.

A recent initiative is the publication of The Book of Life, of which  I have been reading and sharing segments over the past year or so and thoroughly recommend.

One recent writing I find particularly salient to the Australian experience concerns how we in the western world deal – or can’t deal, with Losers/ Losing and success.  Check it out.

If you feel uneasy at the direction the world seems to be pushing you – if you feel powerless to push back, I recommend a visit to http://www.theschooloflife.com in the virtual world or, better yet, exercise your brain in the physical world by visiting your nearest branch.

Luckily for me, I am proud to say we have a school right here in Melbourne.

Message to the PM: More Kowtow, Less Kimchi

Prime Minister Tony Abbott could learn a lot from the cultures of our free trade partners in East Asia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott could learn a lot from the cultures of our free trade partners in East Asia.

LEADERSHIP COMMUNICATIONS

By Jamie Morse

Koreans are sometimes thought of as hot-headed and quick to temper. Perhaps it’s the spicy kimchi, fire chicken or the ubiquitous soju. Yet, travel to Seoul as a tourist and it’s likely a market researcher will ask for your impressions of the country, its pros, cons and suggestions for improvement.

With this need to understand themselves through the opinions of outsiders, contrary to the hot-headed stereotype, Korean identity is actually defined by what non-Koreans say about Korea and its people.

Similarly, the Japanese people define themselves more by their contribution to a community or group, seeking harmony and cooperation in all personal interactions.

In both cultures, whenever negative feedback is received it is always addressed to ensure a more positive future experience.

Within these comparable cultural contexts, political and business leaders are linked to their constituents and stakeholders more indivisibly than we are used to in our individualist, Western culture.

Yet, despite these cultural contexts, recent examples of Korean and Japanese leaders who, like our own, faltered when the situation called for public contrition, illustrates the blind spot of leaders who live in ‘bubbles’ and fail to effectively communicate and connect with their base.

Former South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (2008-2013) issued not one but two public apologies when his government endured weeks of public protests during a disastrous first year in office after a decision to reopen US beef imports was fuelled by wide-ranging public sentiment that the president, nick-named The Bulldozer, was non-consultative and authoritarian. Sound familiar?

Toyota slowly recovered from its near-death experience in February 2010 when its president Akio Toyoda gave a public bow calibrated to precise length and depth to convey contrition and remorse, after a range of manufacturing defects led to global product recalls.

Still, like President Lee, it took Toyoda two bows to get it right. Leaders in East Asia are not accustomed to doing the bowing themselves. They are usually the ones scrutinising the posture and endurance of bows afforded to them not by them.

Although it is difficult to put the theatre of East Asian apologies into an Australian cultural context, Prime Minister Tony Abbott could use a dose of Confucian culture and Zen wisdom to reboot his recent contrition before colleagues and the nation.

After 16 months in office we know that Tony Abbott’s identity is one of a man defined by his adversaries not the people he serves. The roots for this lie in an insecurity about his legitimacy as a leader.

Abbott’s salvation could lie in crafting and communicating his vision for the country – a vision which provides the context for the austerity measures his government has been advocating. Without any discernible vision the government’s programme has no balancing context. Instead, communications coming from Canberra continue to paint Abbott and the government as uncaring and authoritarian.

Replacing a period of entitlement with one of austerity might not be so hard if the government could communicate a vision which will be paid for by short-term fiscal austerity. The government’s 2030 Vision for Developing Northern Australia, which will double our agricultural output and grow tourism and energy sectors in that region, could be part of that vision. This is a big picture narrative with big potential pay-offs for the country.

Unfortunately, having cemented his tough guy image, communicating an entrepreneurial vision of the future, paid for by short-term austerity, will not be easy. Can he do it?

The examples of Lee Myung-Bak and Akio Toyoda remind us that leaders are not always skilled in the artful apology or proactive listening. Abbott, a street fighter at his best when his back is against the wall, is likewise unaccustomed to apologising, and clearly needs to master the art of listening and communicating.

The wisdom of Confucius is apt for the time:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and justice will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.

To borrow from the Greeks, Tony Abbott needs to ‘know thyself’ and, rather than seeking feedback from around his office he could do well to follow the Korean lead and ask a few strangers how they view his style and policies. Then, if he’s prepared to heed the advice he receives, he might have a fighting chance of survival.

Photography by Neil George. For more information visit www.neilpgeorge.com

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