Plugging Apec – or how not to sell politicians

The latest classic involves a public relations spin artist who APEC employed to sell the benefits of trade liberalisation, and, our Trade Negotiations Minister Lockwood Smith.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. The technique PR consultant Jane Sweeney uses is called “marketing public policy correctly”. Not simple propaganda – as some cynical readers might incorrectly infer from the following story.

The technique Smith employs is simply overenthusiasm, or “singing one’s mouth off” – as less charitable observers might say.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Last week. Auckland was full of trade junkies of every description in town for a seminar: “Bridging the Gap – Explaining Trade and Investment Liberalisation”.

It was the latest in the series of Apec-related seminars which have filled business and news media diaries this year as the Government aims to extract the most advantage it can from New Zealand’s year as host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group.

So I was pleased to accept an invitation to listen to some first-class speakers on the complex issues involved in communicating trade liberalisation. Issues which, essentially, boiled down to how the benefits of such an abstract subject are conveyed to the 99.9 per cent of Asia Pacific populations who do not know what Apec stands for and are baffled by the endless acronyms which bedevil trade talks.

The seminar was not officially open to working journalists. But a number of New Zealand’s editors and columnists had been invited, along with a smattering of local businessmen and academics. But not the vast numbers of Asia Pacific journalists also in Auckland for the Apec Trade Ministers’ meeting which was taking place at the same time. Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer – reacting to complaints from journalists who had travelled with him to New Zealand – soon put a stop to the absurdity. The news media was officially allowed in.

However, it was not long before I was bailed up at my table by Consultus’ Auckland managing director and asked whether I was “reporting” the event. Sweeney had been assured that the seminar was off-limits to news media.

I explained I had been invited in my own right … blah, blah. Pointed out that my Apec credentials were strong – I was an originator of the New Zealand business drive to hold a CEOs’ summit at the Leaders’ Meeting in Auckland next September. Ironic also given that the seminar was being chaired by Urban Lehner, executive editor and publisher of the Asian Wall Street Journal. What’s your problem? I mouthed.

God knows why Sweeney exhibited minor paranoia towards the media.

The bulk of New Zealand journalists did not attend her presentation – they were safely ensconced within plush chairs in the Carlton Hotel’s upstairs lobby. Which is a pity because they would have learned that people treat media commentary on liberalisation issues “with a grain of salt”.

Governments were not regarded as credible advocates either – because they were seen as influenced by their need to be re-elected every three or so years. And economists – well, who can understand their jargon?

Sweeney’s concern seemed to be that journalists would have headlined her company’s work in distilling key messages to sell liberalisation. Messages such as “open trade is critical to our economic future; it will improve our living standards; it will bring new capital and knowledge, and therefore create employment opportunities; and the classic – “we will get to participate in the ‘big pond’ and not be such a small fish after all.”

Television news journalists, talkback hosts, business leaders had been identified as among the influencers for conveying such messages. For those who had lost their jobs through trade liberalisation, the social marketing programme could assist with improved understanding.

“The object is to assist people to see this life change as an opportunity to re-educate, retain and realign their career paths.”

All this may have put the wind up Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey, but for this columnist it was simply stating the obvious (if post-fact) in relation to, for instance, the effects of liberalisation on the local car industry.

All of this was, however, small beer compared with Lockwood Smith’s performance at the Trade Ministers’ dinner at the Heritage Hotel.

Sir Howard Morrison has been labelled a “boofhead” over his racially insensitive jokes. But he was simply the warm-up act for Smith. The Trade Negotiations Minister, on the way to his “global breakthrough” for Apec, foreshadowed this with a solo rendition of Now is the hour.

Overselling the Apec message has as much downside as underselling it. But then – as Sweeney says – politicians are prone to the three-year cycle disease.

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