The toughest public relations challenges of 2022 were faced by the Government not corporates, according to those in the business of brand and crisis management.
Staff at the Wellington-based PR firm, BlacklandPR, identified around 200 difficult public communications issues throughout the year. They then cut their list to 30 and ranked the challenges.
Nineteen of the top 20 were government-related, largely stemming from decisions around managing Covid-19.
Taking the top spot was the big protest at Parliament early in the year. Next was the Government’s decisions to ratchet up Covid-19 restrictions in January, followed by concerns around the understaffed health system, workforce shortages more generally and the easing of international travel restrictions.
BlacklandPR considered four factors when ranking issues: impact – how many people were affected, profile – media coverage and “talkability” in everyday life, emotion – the intensity of emotional reaction, and complexity – complications and technicalities of the issue.
One of the firm’s directors, Nick Gowland, said the protest was the most-discussed issue of the year.
“It had everything an issue needs to mean something to every New Zealander,” he said.
“The Government had its work cut out to deal with the protest itself, and then explain to the country why and how they made their decisions.
“When emotions run high, the communication challenge is incredibly complex – even unresolvable. It is impossible to deal with such an event and keep everyone happy. At the same time, there are plenty of ways of making the impact of the event even worse.”
Other government issues considered tough PR challenges were policy related. For example, efforts to encourage farmers to reduce their carbon emissions through He Waka Eke Noa, immigration settings, ramraids and crime, Three Waters and the impact of emergency housing being concentrated in Rotorua.
Gowland said government issues typically ranked highly in BlacklandPR’s annual lists.
For example, in 2016, when National was in government, 15 of the top 20 PR challenges were government related. The biggest issues were housing affordability, the Kaikoura earthquake and water contamination in Hawke’s Bay.
BlacklandPR, which mainly has private sector clients, believed that with the public interest around Covid-19 abating, more of the spotlight would be put back on businesses and private companies.
“In many ways, Covid-19 served as a bit of a smokescreen for poor company behaviour, poor communication,” Gowland said.
“That smokescreen’s not going to be there anymore. Plus, you have the fact that customers are going to be more demanding. They’re not going to tolerate empty promises and statements. They just want good customer service and good prices.”
KFC was the only business to make it to the top 20 in this year’s list of PR challenges. It made headlines for running out of chicken and providing poor customer service.
“Various international studies have shown that around 90 per cent of customers will not complain about an issue. So such a high level of publicly expressed frustration and confusion shows the problems were significant to Kiwis,” Gowland said.
Other non-government entities that made it to this year’s top 30 included Fletchers over the Gib shortage and Arise church over resignations of its senior leaders after bullying allegations.
Back to the public sector, the Reserve Bank’s communication challenge - assuring everyone it’s serious about curbing inflation - and the Ministry of Health’s management of rapid antigen tests were also deemed difficulties by BlacklandPR.
Honourable mentions that didn’t make the top 30 included the burglary of firearm owner details from the disused Auckland Central Police Station, New Zealand Rugby’s scheduling clash of the Black Ferns and the All Blacks, and Air New Zealand’s not-so-direct New York flights.
Gowland believed most of the PR challenges faced by independent organisations were “own-goals”.
“Most often, companies were authors of their own misfortune,” he said.
“For example, New Zealand Rugby’s scheduling clash between All Blacks and Black Ferns was just dumb. It could have – and should have – been caught and remedied before the fact.
“A large part of PR is prevention. Many organisations simply don’t have the time or resource, so PR’s role is to think about the worst possible outcome and change things before they happen, or get too bad.”