John Drinnan: Tsars in their eyes

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National bosses are looking at a communications tsar to promote the Government message and deal with lobbyists and interest groups lining up for attention.

A political insider said the communications tsar idea went beyond schmoozing with journalists and was about National connecting to lobbyists and interest groups.

Such a post could be influential, especially since National's media strategy seems headed for trouble.

The tsar idea - developed by Foreign Affairs Minister and former public relations man Murray McCully - is expected to face resistance.

I asked Prime Minister John Key's chief press secretary Kevin Taylor about the status of plans, which I've been told have been considered in the top levels of the Government. "I've heard the rumour," said Kevin Taylor, whom Key handpicked while in Opposition. He dismissed the suggestion as "bullshit".

The Business Herald asked to speak directly to Key's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson for his views on the idea.

After all, establishing a central point for selling Government policy might affect Taylor's position - he might even be a candidate for this important role.

But Taylor declined access, saying that as the PM's chief press secretary "I can speak for the Government".

Oram outside tent

It is too early to cast aspersions on National's communications strategy.

It is still bedding into power after a long haul in Opposition and an election campaign, the main strategy of which was to limit Key's unrehearsed contact with the media. But the Nats' communications strategy appears to have the wobbles.

An example? Before the election business commentator Rod Oram was shut out of access to Key and his deputy Bill English.

Oram - who is a commentator for the Sunday Star Times and Radio New Zealand National - said he was turned down for interviews and when he asked again was told by Taylor that Key and English felt he had "pushed them over more than once" and they would not speak to him.

Oram had spoken in favour of Labour and some will share the view he was overly sceptical of the Nats. But a Wellington insider said National's approach was outrageous, and a smart party would sell their ideas to someone like Oram - not shut him out of the tent. That approach surely can't last now that National is in Government.

In the first two terms of Labour that strategy was held together by Helen Clark's chief press secretary Mike Munro.

When he left, Labour's relationship with the media went to the dogs. But he held the fort for Helen and H2 for two terms. National is still looking for its Mike Munro.

Sultans of spin

The good news for National is that it has hired some top people to handle media. Beyond Taylor in Key's office are Lesley Hamilton and former New Zealand Herald political reporter Paula Oliver.

There is no confirmation on Bill English's press secretary but it is expected to go to National Bank PR man Craig Howie.

Former TV3 political editor Stephen Parker will work with Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee.

Former TVNZ Sunday journalist Jackie Maher will work with Health Minister Tony Ryall, Simon Beattie with Environment Minister Nick Smith, Stefan Herrick with the flinty Police Minister Judith Collins, former Newstalk ZB reporter Helene Ambler is with Education Minister Anne Tolley, James Funnell with Murray McCully.

Old timer former Bill Birch press secretary and MFAT spokesman Brad Tattersfield will be a guiding hand for Social Development Minister Paula Bennett.

Former National Business Review news editor and Independent wine writer Nick Bryant is with Phil Heatley while blogger and NBR columnist Ben Thomas is with Arts Minister Chris Finlayson.

The angels did sing

As with the plagiarism fiasco - where public radio bosses told staff to quell rumours about their workmate Noelle McCarthy - Radio New Zealand is intent on showing it is on top of ethical issues.

Not least among its concerns is ensuring the underfunded staff let the bosses know if they are scoffing free chocolates at Christmas. Chief executive Peter Cavanagh sent a jolly note this week saying that with the silly season in full swing "it's timely to remind all staff of the Radio New Zealand policies relating to the acceptance of gifts and favours.

"Any offer of gifts, entertainment, tickets, favours, personal discounts, bottles of wine, chocolates or other simple gratuities must be declared to your senior manager. In general, small promotional gifts may be accepted - however any gift, including hospitality, must be declined if it is more than of a modest nature."

Which would be a valid argument I guess, if there were not much bigger problems inside state radio for Cavanagh to exercise his policing role.

'Transition'

ACP New Zealand has pulled back from its digital strategy, scrapping metrolive.co.nz and yourhomeandgarden.co.nz from next month.

It will be outsourcing two sites - cleo.co.nz - to its joint venture online partner MSN.com. ACP will continue to control editorial content for websites under their titles' names. ACP publishing boss Debra Millar likened the change to a "transition" and the discontinued live websites would remain in some form.

The "Trader" division websites are not affected. Between eight and 10 ACP staff are believed to have been dropped though ACP chief executive Paul Dykzeul said that some say may end up with MSN.

While the cutbacks are focused on the online arm, Dykzeul said ACP was also revamping the current affairs division.

Metro staff writer Jan Corbett has seen her position disestablished. The position of editor in chief of Metro and North & South - created last year and held by former Little Treasures editor Sally Duggan - has also gone.

ACP has pulled the red carpet from under its fashion website runwayreporter.co.nz - which it bought from Stacy Gregg and Michael Lamb in September 2006. Dykzeul said that there was some potential for the website in the future but it is understood that the website will be largely disassembled.

Reading in bed

After a period when ACP New Zealand has been expanding, Paul Dykzeul returned this year to run the company in its toughest hour.

The Packer dynasty has exited the magazine firm which - like all media - faces an advertising downturn.

APN - publisher of the Herald - laid off four people and Fairfax recently laid off staff and folded businessday.co.nz back into its Stuff website.

Both ACP and Fairfax have debt problems as does APN's controlling shareholder Independent News & Media.

But unusually ACP has focused more on paring back its online assets - going against the conventional wisdom that the future of media is online. Magazine publishers - especially those producing glossy titles - have advanced the view that hard copy titles will always be strong. People take their magazines to bed and the beach, not their laptops, the theory goes.

Media hutch

Advertising and marketing veteran Mike Hutcheson has moved into the media world. The firm in which he is a director - online hosting company and print production company The Image Centre - has merged with Jones Publishing, the company that produces The Dish, Top Gear, NZ Rugby World and Real Groove.

Hutcheson - who was managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Auckland from 1998 to 2003 - said the combined company with a print hall serving 50 titles made sense in the emerging new environment.

- NZ Herald

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