By TIM WATKIN
Early each morning for the past month, as you and I have breakfasted, fought traffic and stumbled into work, Mike Munro and Sue Foley have been on the phone trying to figure out what we're going to care about that day. Since before dawn they have had the radio and television going and have been poring over the papers, in print and online. Like ancient soothsayers picking over chicken entrails, they try to read in the headlines and pictures what the big issues of the day will be.
Then these modern-day seers must go before their respective royal courts: Foley before the pretender Bill English and Munro before Empress Helen Clark. They are chief press secretaries - their masters' pulse-takers and messengers. Their main job during an election campaign is to assess the public mood, a task akin to figuring out what colour a rainbow is.
Munro's phone call comes each day at 7.30am, Foley's at either 7 or 8am. On the other end of the conference line are senior party and political figures who make up each party's campaign team: in Munro's case, Labour president Mike Williams, senior staff from the Prime Minister's office such as Heather Simpson, and MPs including Michael Cullen, Steve Maharey, Phil Goff, Trevor Mallard and Annette King. On the phone with Foley is National president Michelle Boag, director-general Allan Johnston and MPs including Roger Sowry, Murray McCully and Simon Power.
As the sun rises, these teams assess their party's performance, how they rated in the news the day before and, depending on what they think the issues will be, discuss how their leader can either benefit from a different spin or control the damage. The press secretaries' role on these crowded calls will be to predict what questions and issues journalists will want to push and work out what their leader should say about them.
Here and now, at the pinpoint of an election campaign, Foley and Munro are playing a pivotal and influential political role. They have the ear and the mouth of the two main party leaders. In other countries, media advisers have developed a high-profile and nefarious reputation as spinners and tricksters, yet here the names and faces of our two most powerful players mean little or nothing to the public.
So who are Sue Foley and Mike Munro? What are they like and what is their role in this election campaign?
Munro and Foley are hugely different characters. Munro is a family man from professional, provincial stock; a thoughtful, affable chap who loves his sport and spent his journalism career in print, mostly working in Parliament's press gallery.
Foley grew up on a farm near Bulls, became a school rebel and got married and divorced by her mid-20s. She's full of energy, works off gut instinct and spent her journalism career mostly in radio and television.
On a professional level, however, these media advisers have much in common. Don't, for example, call them spin doctors. Or the power behind the throne. Unlike prominent press secretaries in the United States and Britain, such as Bill Clinton's George Stephanopoulos and Tony Blair's Alistair Campbell, neither fits the Machiavelli mould nor has any gift for spin.
Instead, they are both regarded as straight-shooters, respected and even liked by political journalists. They shun the limelight and a role as players. They are both given credit for truckloads of common sense and for not taking their work too seriously. If either of them lost their job tomorrow, colleagues say, they would simply shrug and move on.
W HEN Munro took the position as press secretary to then Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark, in 1996, Prime Minister Jim Bolger said to his press secretary Richard Griffin, "I never thought a Taranaki boy would go over to the socialists." Griffin, now communications manager for TVNZ in Wellington, shares the story with a chuckle. More seriously, he adds, "He was angry because he knew Mike was a man of integrity."
Munro - laidback, likeable and committed to openness - was just what Clark needed in those dark days. He left his job as political editor for the Dominion and joined Clark when National was secure in its second term. At the time Clark was unpopular and on the defensive, hounded by the Alliance to her left and struggling to make an impression on National to her right.
Although colleagues were aware Munro had been looking around for a new challenge, several were surprised that he crossed over to the PR side.
"He didn't seem the type for a press secretary," says Munro's former boss, now Northern Advocate editor Tony Verdon. He didn't see Munro as tough enough.
"I just can't see him monstering journos around the gallery. He's such a calm joker."
Munro had been in the gallery since just before the 1984 election. He was sent south by the Herald from its Auckland newsroom to join its team in the parliamentary press gallery.
"He walked in and just fitted," Verdon recalls. "He's that sort of guy. Very amenable. People would talk to him because he put them at ease."
Griffin remembers a slightly stronger streak once he left the Herald and became political editor for the Dominion. "He was always prepared to take on [long-time Dominion editor] Richard Long. He was affable, but not easily movable. If he believes in a position he takes it on and that's it."
Munro was a journalist who chased stories and earned a reputation by being solid rather than flashy. "As a journo he was respected and very competent, but never a star," says Listener political columnist Jane Clifton.
Griffin agrees that is Munro to a tee. Although Munro's a big man who gets noticed when he enters a room, he never had a big ego or pushed himself forward. Which are all qualities that would have appealed to Clark.
Those interviewed agree Clark doesn't want a press secretary telling her what to do and stepping on her strategic toes. She's less dependent on Munro than previous Prime Ministers have been on their press secretaries.
She has other media advisers, such as Brian Edwards, with whom she has a more personal attachment. (Griffin says Munro and Clark operate at a purely professional level.) She also has her own instincts, her own words and her own contacts.
Munro suggests as much himself.
"She's got a very good grip of media realities and has a good feel herself for how things will run in the media."
That was as much as Munro would say. In keeping with his low-key style, he refused to be interviewed by the Herald and talk about his personal life, agreeing only to talk briefly about Labour's campaign in "the most general terms". He wasn't a candidate for office and was just one adviser among many, he said.
Others will tell you, however, that he's married to Heather Church, formerly Kim Hill's producer at National Radio, has two children and is a sports nut, enjoying cycling and mountain-biking. He's seldom seen without his family on the weekend and is admired for balancing his personal and political life.
While his personal life is kept private, his relationship with Clark is the topic of some discussion.
"Mike fits with Clark," says one former gallery journalist, who didn't want to be named. "She doesn't want a master strategist or a stand-out. She wants a safe pair of hands and a hard worker, which is what he is."
Those spoken to agree: a great media manipulator or strategist he isn't. As one says, "He always looks genuinely amused when interviewers treat him as a Svengali." Or another: "Sometimes Mike will have to ring you up and tell you off, and he's dreadful at it." One even suggested that given Clark's tendency to do everything herself, "he's almost like a glorified booking agent".
Mark Blackham, a press secretary with Mike Moore from 1989 to 1993 and now a public relations consultant with Porter Novelli, says "Helen's doing the spin. He gets you in another way. Honesty, sincerity. I guess that's his MO. A nice clean statement of ideology in understandable language."
Blackham says Munro's calm conviction makes him utterly believable. "With so many obsessed people in Parliament, someone that's calm and reasonable is a breath of fresh air."
Griffin believes that for all Clark's independence, "she's very lucky to have him". Others point to the skill with which he organises Labour's team of press secretaries and the oh-so-crucial ability to give journalists a good steer on what Clark is thinking and where a story is going. Griffin wasn't the only one to suggest there's more to Munro than first meets the eye.
"Because he doesn't blow his own trumpet people have come to the conclusion that he has limited influence, but he has a great deal more than people give him credit for."
S UE FOLEY is standing in Aotea Square wrapped in a full-length jacket of the Wellington style. She's hovering behind Bill English and watching the clouds, ready to hand him an umbrella at the first sign of rain. A press secretary's life might put them in the path of history, but isn't always glamorous.
Not that Foley's complaining. The teenager who scraped through School Certificate by four marks and then, in her own words, conned her way into a job as a medical photographer at Palmerston North Hospital on the back of a prize in photography, has come good.
"I wasn't an A student. I was a bit of a rebel. A lot of people are surprised to see me end up where I have."
Understandably. Foley was married at 18, had a son at 20 and divorced when she was 26. Now, however, she has a home in Bulls where she lives with her partner of 20 years. As settled as that sounds, she's still in touch with the wild child within. She was thrilled when her son gave her an Aerosmith CD last Christmas. "I'm into heavy metal," she says staunchly.
As the law and order protesters repeatedly cheer a string of speakers calling for longer sentences, Foley says the only achievement she could put on her CV in those early years was Bus Prefect at Rangitikei College. "I only took it off a couple of years ago," she adds with a trademark rough'n'tumble chuckle.
The CV certainly doesn't need it any more. She's paid her dues. She was 21 and working in a Bulls stables - a job she loved and says she would happily go back to - when her journalism career began, writing columns for Friday Flash under the pseudonym Rag Doll. Unable to afford childcare, she would cart her son round wherever she went in those early years of journalism.
Friday Flash led to a racing column in the Rangitikei Mail, which in turn expanded into general news work. Despite that, it was a bold move when she applied for the job of chief reporter at Manawatu radio station 2XS. The station manager later told her that when she turned up for the interview in cowboy boots, he knew he had to hire her.
She made an impression in the world of provincial news, but when she decided to move on - after six and a half years - her next application was as brazen as her last. She applied to be Mike Moore's chief press secretary. She didn't get that job, but her gumption impressed Moore and two months later he offered her a less senior press secretarial job.
Her standing in the office grew, however, and she was at Moore's side throughout the 1993 campaign.
There, political insiders say, she learned to think on her feet, dealing with Moore's erratic ways. She also learned a lot from Moore's famous common touch and the political importance of empathy.
Foley went on to work as chief of staff for TV3 News and a producer for 20/20. Her boss there, TV3 head of news Mark Jennings, describes her fondly as down to earth - "She's a person who can cut through the bullshit" - and bolshy - "Her views would not be left unheard, you might say".
Corporate PR followed - the America's Cup, Tranzrail - before English offered her this job, making her the first press secretary to work for both main party leaders (since the role was taken from the civil servants. More on that later).
Foley doesn't see any political conflict in that. She says if you lose objectivity and become "a believer", you won't give good advice.
"To me it's all about people. I don't belong to a political party, but I couldn't work for people I didn't believe in."
English, she believes in, as she did Moore. And, increasingly, English believes in her.
"She's become very significant as far as Bill's concerned," says Griffin. Where Clark's team is established and drilled, English is on his first go round and political journalists say Foley consequently has more duties and a harder task than Munro.
Those interviewed agreed her appointment was an inspired move by English. Griffin says with her relative lack of political experience added to the fact she's so very different from the slick Michelle Boag, she was a gamble.
While some in the party resent her, he reckons it's paid off. "She's enormously refreshing for the National Party," he says.
"When I heard that she had been selected I thought, 'That's an extremely good move by National,' because they need to get back in touch with the electorate this election," says Blackham. Her pragmatism and instinct for middle New Zealand is just what National needs, he adds.
It was Foley who turned Farmer English into Boxing Bill, sending him into the Fight for Life. She knew promoter Dean Lonergan, knew he ran a safe show, and saw an opportunity. She never urged Bill to fight, just introduced him to Lonergan and let him do the asking.
"This is a guy with courage," she says. "I knew he'd do it. It was to show the real guy who has guts and determination."
That was typical Foley, says Blackham. It was a punt, but it was bang on. It used her extensive list of contacts. And it got down to the core of English. "She has a passion to show people in their natural state," he says.
And a passion for life. As Blackham says, she's a workaholic and "she greets everybody she knows - and she knows a lot of people - with a huge, cheery smile."
A smile can be hard to find during a campaign, with its 18-hour working days. "Luckily," says Foley, still smiling as she indicates that she's really got to go, "I've got a good country-girl constitution."
The straight-up, non-spinning reputation Munro and Foley share represents a pendulum swing back towards the generation of press secretaries before 1984.
Then, they were civil servants with little media know-how, fished out of the Tourism and Publicity Department pool and sent to whoever was in power.
The arrival of the fourth Labour Government and a Cabinet of bright young-ish things signalled a culture change. They brought with them ex-journalists and PR people on contracts.
And for a few terms, the chief press secretaries were players. They had a powerbase and a profile all their own. And they spun a line. Boy, did they spin. People like Ross Vintner and Bevan Burgess for Labour and Michael Wall and Richard Griffin for National.
"That's dissipated," says Griffin himself. "They've gone back to what they really should be - just the conduits."
Alliance president Matt McCarten, himself a star spinner, says MPs got fed up with their press secretaries' power and profile and have put them back in their place. Under MMP the importance of the party president has also grown and Labour and National - in Williams and Boag - have strong party leaders with plenty of their own experience in PR.
While the smaller parties still hire media advisers who are "politicos", the big two have opted for professional managers, McCarten says. Doers, rather than believers.
Right now, Foley and Munro are doing all they can to squeeze the last few votes from a moody electorate. Today, once again, they're trying to read your mind and work out what pushes your buttons. Tomorrow morning they'll be back on the phone reporting what they have found and trying to figure out what they can say - in just one week - that will make you love their leader.
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By TIM WATKIN