John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: Police PR cops some flak

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Expert believes brand remains strong but force's communication strategy is failing and needs to be reviewed.

Incoming Police commissioner, Mike Bush.
Incoming Police commissioner, Mike Bush.

Police top brass have suffered from communications cock-ups in the past 12 months. Yet they insist there is no need to change the way they talk to the media and the public.

Police gave out incorrect information on the muddled Roast Busters investigation. And after publicity in the Herald last month, they changed a road safety commercial that wrongly blamed a truck driver for a serious motorway crash.

A bigger illustration of the problems in police PR was the eulogy at the funeral for Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, written by communications staff, which said he had "integrity beyond reproach".

A Royal Commission of Inquiry found Hutton had planted evidence used to wrongly convict Arthur Allan Thomas of the 1970 murders of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe. The highly political eulogy was delivered by Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Bush, who will replace Peter Marshall as Commissioner in April.

This week, as police announced Bush's selection, he got things off to a strange start by saying he regretted the eulogy comment.

A Thomas supporter complained that the apology was "half-hearted" - ensuring the PR damage lasts even longer.

Last year Commissioner Marshall came under intense criticism for police handling of the Roast Busters case.

AUT senior lecturer in public relations Aline Sandilands says the overall police brand remains strong. But she believes the force's communication strategy is failing and needs to be reviewed.

Police have appeared closed and unwilling to be transparent, she says, and the public is becoming confused about what is going on inside the force. Both Marshall and Bush considered queries from the Herald but dismissed questions about whether there was a need to review the communications strategy.

A police spokesman said: "The police deal with many thousands of requests for information and produce multiple media campaigns on a variety of channels each year. We don't get it right every single time, and we address and fix these issues as they arise."

Cow and gate

2013 was the Year of the Cow for Fonterra. And for Countdown supermarkets, 2014 will be the Year of the Bull at the Gate. Shane Jones' tough talking allegations about the way Countdown does business, made under parliamentary privilege, have resulted in a Commerce Commission investigation.

Progressive Enterprises Countdown supermarket sign
Progressive Enterprises Countdown supermarket sign

AUT's Sandilands has not seen signs of any great loss of custom for Countdown, but the ComCom investigation could go on for a long time. Countdown's parent Progressive Enterprises - the New Zealand division of the Australian groceries giant Woolworths - wholly rejects Jones' allegations and says it is focused on advising staff dealing with customer inquiries, and messages on instore radio. But it seems likely the brand will need a bigger bulwark than that.

In the meantime, news media consumers should be encouraged by the fact that news outlets have given wide coverage to the claims about Countdown, which is one of New Zealand's biggest advertisers and could inflict considerable damage if it were of a mind to.

That approach will have been helped by the fact that the allegations were aired in Parliament, free from the danger of defamation claims, and all media were obliged to cover Jones' claims.

Nation-state

MediaWorks-owned TV3 is understood to be looking further afield for a presenter for The Nation, the weekend current affairs show that was brought in-house this year. The show - which received nearly $900,000 of NZ on Air funding for 2014 - returns this weekend, yet TV3 has still not appointed a frontperson. Political editor Paddy Gower will fill in as presenter for the first two weeks, but is not keen on making a permanent commitment.

RadioLive drive-time host Duncan Garner already presents weekly current affairs show 3rd Degree and is expected to be promoted to the breakfast host on RadioLive, replacing Marcus Lush.

Rachel Smalley was presenter last year and there had been talk that she might continue on The Nation, alongside her new role as early breakfast host of Newstalk ZB. However, MediaWorks management ruled her out because of her work with that rival radio network.

Guyon Espiner could have had the show, but is committed to a new role on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report.

TV3 even approached former Close Up host Mark Sainsbury, but I hear those discussions were difficult.

Ambitious

Rachel Smalley went public this week with an attack on her former employer TV3, saying that as a woman she was held back. But her ambition might have got the better of her, as I understand that she was insisting on a place in prime time, challenging John Campbell on Campbell Live.

Radio host Rachel Smalley at the Newstalk ZB studio in Auckland City. Photo / APN
Radio host Rachel Smalley at the Newstalk ZB studio in Auckland City. Photo / APN

Smalley will be a loss for TV3 and she is entitled to be ambitious given her background as an anchor for Sky News in Britain, but it was bold to try to unseat Campbell. Smalley has a following and has always been ambitious.

She even took the unusual step of hiring her own publicity manager, Niki Schuck, who also represents the millionaire Eric Watson, and the Radio Network.

Board games

The Television New Zealand board met yesterday with the wounds still fresh from the latest troubles in TV One's news and current affairs division.

There was the fiasco over former Maori and Pacific unit general manager Shane Taurima organising a Labour Party meeting at the network centre - leading to a review of potential bias.

Now TVNZ faces the embarrassment of its most experienced news anchor, Peter Williams, and Seven Sharp staffer Dean Butler admitting that they made up comments for a Breakfast programme item about social media abuse of presenters.

Peter Williams at the AFTA film and television awards Photo / Michael Craig
Peter Williams at the AFTA film and television awards Photo / Michael Craig

TVNZ says the made-up comments were a simple mistake, but apart from calling a party political meeting at state TV, it's hard to think of a worse error for a TVNZ editorial leader.

In the past TVNZ has rejected my reports that the government-appointed board has questioned the approach of Seven Sharp.

But in my opinion the troubles at TVNZ are such that the board needs to examine what has gone wrong.

I predict the issue will be of intense interest to the deputy chairwoman, Joan Withers - the former chief executive of Fairfax Media - and Roger MacDonnell, the adman and branding expert who once headed Clemenger operations in New Zealand.

- 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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