Public sector carries burden of 20 toughest PR jobs of year

Issues relating to people's health or safety featured more than usual this year, 

The public sector is the overwhelming source of this year’s toughest public relations assignments, a new survey shows.

Blackland PR compiles an annual top 20 of incidents that demanded a strong dose of “spin” to minimise negative outcomes.

Top of the list – though closely contested by two others – was the fallout from former Green Party co-leader Metira Turei’s benefit fraud “confession.”

Ms Turei resigned her position and did not seek re-election in September.

Issues surrounding the election of the new Labour-led coalition government took the runner-up position, followed by the Wiri pipeline breakage.

Refining NZ was not alone in handling this but the outage was one of only three private sector-related incidents to make the top 20, the others being fuel prices (12th) and Fonterra chief executive Theo Spiering’s pay (16th).

Blackland PR director Mark Blackham says the scoring system ranks issues out of 10 in four factors – Impact (how many people are consciously affected directly or indirectly), Profile (media coverage and ‘talkability’ in everyday life), Emotion (the intensity of emotional reaction) and Complexity (complications and technicalities of the issue). 

Health and safety concerns
Government agencies and local councils dominate the list, with public hazard and bio-security issues responsible for a quarter. 

“Issues relating to people’s health or safety are a regular feature of this list, but there are more than usual this year,” Mr Blackham says.

These ranged from water contamination in Hawke’s Bay to disease outbreaks affecting kauri, oysters and myrtle plants.

“We think this is due to stronger awareness and interest in health and bio-security, rather than an actual increase in such risks," he says. “The heightened alarm has many contributors, from more monitoring and research, and media and public interest in risk, and an institutional bias toward publicising – particularly ahead of any need or benefit from doing so.  

“The irony is that more publicity about risks only seems to increase interest and worry about risks, rather than reassuring people. Publicity also tends to generate unreasonable expectations about what can be done to diminish the chances of things going wrong.”

Poor handling of public finances featured in the Joanne Harrison fraud at the Ministry of Transport and the Waikato District Health Board, which Mr Blackham describes as a "black hole," where a small PR issue expands into one that threatens the entire organisation.

“What started as a story about incompetence and financial mismanagement has morphed into scrutiny about the DHB’s abilities to perform core functions such as accrediting drinking water,” he says.

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