John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: High-risk PR strategy flies

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Matthew Hooton's aggressive public relations approach pays off for the 'good guys' at the rescue helicopter trust.

A tough  campaign came to the rescue of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, after its funding was slashed.  Photo / APN
A tough campaign came to the rescue of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, after its funding was slashed. Photo / APN

Exceltium Corporate & Public Affairs owner Matthew Hooton is crowing from the rooftops after the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust won a victory against the body that decides its ratepayer funding.

Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Hooton says the campaign's success proves the value of an assertive public relations campaign against a legal approach.

Hooton mixes his public affairs consultancy with a role as a high-profile political commentator. He says his PR work sometimes hurts his relationship with the Government. However, I believe that relationship and his role as a media commentator have boosted his business.

"To those people who attacked Exceltium for going too tough, being too assertive, we showed them the value of a campaign where you fight for the good guy," says a gleeful Hooton.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown yesterday called for the scrapping of the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board, which has been at the centre of the funding row with the helicopter trust after deciding this week to cut its funding from $900,000 to $450,000 for the 2014-15 year.

Significantly, considering the involvement of former National Party president Michelle Boag on the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, the Government is involved in the move to dump the Amenities Board.

Just before the mayor's announcement, Hooton's PR manoeuvres looked as risky as they were aggressive. The strategy was aimed at undermining the credibility of the board, overseen by the Auckland Council.

Both Boag and Hooton are experts in political spin. In an election year, their involvement gives the aggressive public relations strategy a blue tinge. The right wing Whale Oil website picked up the campaign and ran stories about what it calls the "helicopter haters" on the Amenities Board.

"Just before the mayor's announcement, Hooton's PR manoeuvres looked as risky as they were aggressive. The strategy was aimed at undermining the credibility of the board, overseen by the Auckland Council."
John Drinnan

Westpac is the trust's major sponsor for rescue operations. Spokesman Chris Mirams said the issues were between the trust and the board.

PR and blogs

This campaign raises other questions about the role of blogs in public relations campaigns. Does Whale Oil's interest focus solely on topics that cause lots of people to click, and increase his potential ad revenue? In my opinion, Whale Oil's links to this PR campaign revive speculation about the business plan of the man behind the website, Cameron Slater. The Whale Oil site has limited advertising revenue, but Slater says he's taking no money from Hooton.

Cameron Slater aka the blogger Whaleoil. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Cameron Slater aka the blogger Whaleoil. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Ironically, both Hooton and Boag have clashed with Slater in the past. All three back National, but Slater is associated with the faction of the party that supports Judith Collins as its next leader.

Pick your lobbyist

Popular political lobbyist Tony O'Brien is adopting a higher profile in his work for Sky TV, amid Labour Party wariness over the background of the woman who replaced him at Sky, former Murray McCully adviser Chris Major.

"Major - whose father was once an unsuccessful National Party candidate - is engaging and is held in high regard within National, a Parliamentary source says."
John Drinnan

O'Brien moved from his Sky job in September, but continued work as a contracted consultant. Some in Labour still hold O'Brien in high regard, and I understand Sky's lobbying activity has now split along party political lines, with O'Brien focusing on Labour and the smaller parties (NZ First leader Winston Peters is also understood to be on good terms with O'Brien).

A source in the Labour camp says there is some discomfort with Major's former roles.

She worked as a special adviser to McCully during the organisation of the Rugby World Cup. Latterly, Major was attached to the Treasury, promoting the mixed-ownership model for assets, a key part of National's political strategy.

Major - whose father was once an unsuccessful National Party candidate - is engaging and is held in high regard within National, a Parliamentary source says.

However I hear Labourites have told Sky TV they like working with O'Brien, and Sky has obliged. Sky TV chief executive John Fellet says it was always envisaged O'Brien would stay on as a consultant and as far as he knows, Major is working across both parties.

Daily show

Good news for fans of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The left-of-centre political chat show is returning to Comedy Central in May, appearing five hours after it screens in the United States.

Jon Stewart. Photo / AP
Jon Stewart. Photo / AP

Sky TV is also in talks to have it replayed on its free-to-air channel, Prime. The move will please fans of the show, which was killed off by Comedy Central because of an issue over rights. Devotees were left to watch on YouTube.

Astro-turfing

I hear the NZ Taxpayers' Union's comments on deaf MP Mojo Mathers have damaged the lobby group's credibility with members of the parliamentary press gallery. Comments by the lobby group's spokesman, Jordan Williams, about the Green MP travelling from Christchurch to Masterton for an interview were pilloried as petty - though part of the problem appears to be that he was responding to journalists' queries, rather than directly attacking Mathers.

The comments raised the question of whether the Taxpayers' Union was largely a promotional vehicle for the political right rather than a consumer body to report on issues like wasteful government spending, and whether it should be reported as such, thus diminishing its importance. Or perhaps, as Auckland University senior lecturer in media Dr Luke Goode says, "it's up to the public to make its own assessment".

Formed by people associated with National, the union is funded by anonymous donations. It insists it's not party political, and that it has criticised National and Act.

The organisation was founded by David Farrar, who set up the right wing Kiwiblog website, and whose firm Curia carries out research for National. Its board also includes media trainer and PR man John Bishop - a regular on Radio New Zealand's programme The Panel.

His son, by the way, is Chris Bishop, a former PR man for tobacco company Phillip Morris who now works as the political adviser in the office of National election strategist Steven Joyce. Another board member is Gabrielle O'Brien, a sales executive with links to National.

Williams, the union's executive director, was involved in an anti-MMP campaign. Farrar insists the union is non-partisan and is aimed at identifying waste but the line-up of board members - and their wish to have National elected - means it would be under intense pressure not to attack National, especially for a media person like Farrar.

Labour's deputy leader, Grant Robertson, thinks the union is a form of "astro-turfing", where supposedly grassroots bodies are set up with the pretence of independence.

He has no concerns with organisations promoting political parties and policies, but says they must show where they are coming from.

Press gallery sources say the union was built largely on Farrar's integrity, but
but the Taxpayer's Union reputation had diminished since the Mathers comments.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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