Communications strategies have become part of government work these days. But in a three-part series, Kate MacNamara looks at cases when the cause of communication has become bogged down in spin and murky disclosure.
Part 1: Who's been listing to what and why?
The Government has paid an estimated $200,000 for a long-running series of "social media listening reports", seemingly aimed at gathering information on Kiwis' online posts and conversations relating to Covid-19 rules and policies.
However, to date, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), has refused to make the reports public, along with the scope of the "listening", its methodology, and the themes it has encompassed.
Fifty-two such reports were commissioned in the past full financial year, one per week, at a rough cost per report of $2,500. The contract totalled $133,890.
That "regular reporting" has continued through the current financial year, a DPMC spokesperson confirmed, but he declined to confirm the additional cost or make public the themes.
"This is part of the routine social media monitoring the Covid-19 Group undertakes," the spokesperson said.
The work has been conducted by the New York head-quartered company Annalect, which has no New Zealand office.
National's Health spokesman Shane Reti challenged the Government and officials to stop obfuscating, if indeed the reporting is "routine".
"What are the themes that the Government has canvassed in these reports? What are the checks and balances? Who's checking to see that they're appropriate? We've got an American company that's been paid a large sum of money to collect information about New Zealanders, why aren't they willing to tell New Zealanders about this?
Last year, Reti put a series of written parliamentary questions to Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
In response, Hipkins said the "social media listening reports" contained no personal information, focused on identifying themes, and had been provided to the Ministry of Health. He did not say what social media channels are being watched.
A Cabinet paper last year described the reports as "social conversation analysis".
Hipkins said the "top three themes" of the reports were: travel, alert levels and vaccines.
However, a slew of unanswered questions remain. Hipkins never responded to Reti's request for the full list of themes, or the methodology employed by Annalect, including whether New Zealand privacy laws are followed.
On Friday, Hipkins again declined to elaborate on the themes covered in the reports, and referred to them as "public sentiment analysis" covering "Covid-19 topics".
The work "has given the Government insight and allows officials to be well informed on what the public are [sic] having difficulty understanding about any guidelines around behaviours and the response. In that sense, it has informed public health decisions to protect the health of New Zealanders and the economy," Hipkins said. Such work, he added, "is a worthwhile investment".
In early December last year the Herald made an Official Information Act (OIA) request for the reports. A response, originally due in late January, was delayed to February 25. It is now overdue and DPMC has yet to acknowledge the delay or account for it.
Hipkins said the department is preparing a response, which should be released "shortly".
Mona Krewel, lecturer in comparative politics at Victoria University of Wellington, said without seeing the reports, and knowing what kind of data Annalect has collected on behalf of DPMC, it's impossible to say whether the practice has constituted untoward surveillance and whether the spending is wasteful.
"You can definitely learn from social media how informed people are. However, one must see the reports to judge whether the goal of better Covid communication could be reached on the basis of these reports … without knowing anything about the quality of the data collection and the statistical analysis the firm provided, and also which communication from the government followed from the [reports'] results, it's impossible to judge their approach," Krewel said.
While Orwellian-sounding in the context of government work, Krewel noted that "social listening" is a common marketing term, and is a product typically sold by consumer research firms for brand analysis, to help companies understand how their brand is perceived online and what sentiments "co-occur" with the brand.
Lara Greaves, a lecturer in New Zealand politics and public policy at the University of Auckland, said the existence of such reports would likely surprise most New Zealanders and fuel misgivings about government surveillance, especially in some groups.
"Most people post on social media not expecting the government to be looking at what they are saying. The expectations that we have of government are really fundamentally different from what we expect of corporations."
The Government's efforts to promote and explain Covid-19 rules and measure New Zealanders' willingness to accept them, and to understand compliance, have been extensive.
Widely transparent mechanisms have included: paid radio, television, print and social media information campaigns (including on NZME platforms and in the NZ Herald); mobility data, released publicly by Apple and Google and analysed in light of alert levels; and Ipsos polling commissioned to identify "vaccine reluctant" groups and their reasons.
Other efforts have been largely invisible.
Last year, for example DPMC contracted Fuse Creative at a cost of $50,000 to deliver something it called the #stayinforit campaign, developed for Auckland's last weekend in level 3 during the February lockdown.
The work included paid spots on a variety of radio stations, including those of NZME (owner of the NZ Herald). It also involved paying 21 "social media influencers" - most of them radio personalities and entertainers, including Gaby Solomona, Moses Mackay, Anika Moa, and Tina Maro, to promote the hashtag and message.
COMING UP IN THIS SERIES:
• Three Waters belly flop: the adman's strategy that spawned a round of failed commercials and soaked the public.
• "Covid communicators": The academics who got a "heads-up" on vaccine developments from government officials hoping to sweeten the news coverage.