It’s been a while since we had a big debate about the protocols of hacks and flaks so here we go again, thanks to some heavy handed spinners at the Brambles AGM and an interesting spray from SMH business journalist Anne Lampe.

Don Argus puts in another shocker

From the November 17 sealed section

The combative BHP-Billiton and Brambles chairman Don “Don’t Argue” Argus was at his heavy-handed worst yesterday.

Photographers from the AFR, the SMH and The Australian had a taste of media management from his aggressive PR operatives at yesterday’s Brambles AGM. The flak had been briefed directly by the board (Argus) on how to accommodate the press at the Brambles AGM.

Being afforded the wonderful privilege of photographing the first five minutes of Argus’ opening address, the photographers moved in to positions to wait for the board’s arrival, before the PR team scrambled to tell them that it was up the back of the room or nowhere. And meanwhile, wait outside until we invite you in. Sorry, it’s how the board wants it.

While waiting outside, a Brambles PR woman not so surreptitiously stood next to the media group and eavesdropped. Not getting the hint when they moved en-mass to the other side of the room, she sidled up to them again. She apparently passed on bits of their conversation (provocative bits, said to bait her) on to her PR masters.

That woman was last seen rounding up media in the waiting room who strayed from their prescribed holding pen, like a cattle dog would sheep.

Perhaps it’s time the media treated the public relations industry not as transparent and secondary constructs of the news, but as elements of the news that are always fair game and are appraised in the same way as all other parts of the story would be.

Spokespeople should be quoted by name. If they are going to say it, then let them put their name to it. Anonymity is a privilege seldom granted to sources by the respectable press, but ‘spokespeople’ get anonymity all the time. So they dish up all sorts of unaccountable drivel and get away with it.

And if we don’t report on this combative and suppressive style of media management by actually making it part of the story, we’ll find this is just the thin edge of the wedge.

As for the AGM itself, dictatorial Don refused requests for directors facing election to speak to the meeting. The AFR’s Rear Window column picked up on this theme today as follows:

Don Argus could have shown a little more confidence in his fellow directors yesterday, or did he not want to relinquish the microphone. the Brambles chairman twice denied requests for his new boys, Jacques Nasser and Stephen Johns, to have a word to shareholders at the annual meeting.

“They can’t add any more to what is in the notice of meeting,” he said.

Not that Argus or chief executive David Turner were short of words. The pair spoke for 67 minutes before getting the formal business of the meeting under way.

Argus is one of the most cynical operator we’ve come across. As CEO at the NAB, he expected his board and management team to follow like lapdogs. As a chairman he dominates the CEO and has been partly responsible for almost $100 million in CEO payouts at the various boards he’s sat on. His governance practices also leave plenty to be desired. He was allowed to keep his options at NAB and then allowed former Brambles CEO John Fletcher to do the same.

Then you have the way he runs AGMs, constantly interrupting speakers who dare criticise. At who can forget the infamous effort of holding the 2003 BHP-Billiton AGM on the Melbourne Cup eve, filibustering with the speeches for more than an hour and then putting the controversial remuneration resolutions at the bottom of the notice of meeting such that we only got to resolution 18 at about 10pm.

Anne Lampe on excessive corporate spin

From the December 6 sealed section

By veteran SMH business reporter Anne Lampe

I read your piece on the media being herded at the Brambles AGM by the company’s spinners and it brought back memories of the last few NRMA meetings I attended where media were kept from going anywhere near seated NRMA members (I guess in case we contaminated them) and were herded into either a seperate section in the meeting hall, a long way away from members, or into a media room where journalists covering the meeting got a so called ”live feed” of selected camera angles from the meeting. This room was situated well away from the meeting and well away from members who might want to speak to journalists.

Here journalists could be hawkishly monitored by an army of internal and external spinners many of whom also spent their time listening to journalists’ conversations or sidling up to them, offering briefings on any issue. It was impossible to shake free from the spin and at times they weren’t averse to following journalists if they left the room to make a call or visit the bathroom.

More recently I was covering a court room stoush between some car repairers at loggerheads with one of our largest car insurers, IAG, in the Federal Court. The IAG spin machine was in attendance every day and was ever vigilant with respect to the media’s movements. At the end of the day they would phone journalists covering the case and offer ”assistance” with any matter that may have arisen in the court, as well as briefings with key IAG executives, and would issue a statement reflecting their view of the key events of the day. Not only that but they would get shirty if their statement did not make it into the day’s court report.

To top off their efforts, journalists covering the proceeding would be told by the spinners that they had noticed that the journalist was not in court when such and such was said. We wondered if were expected to get a leave pass from the spin doctors in order to get a coffee, make a call or go to the bathroom, like kids in primary school.

Then, in the middle of this case, came an offer from the spin for journalists covering the case to attend one of IAG’s selected and approved workshops to see how efficiently it operates, the same sort of tour that the company had given people from the ACCC, we were told.

What on earth the spin doctors thought we would get out of watching someone beating car panels only they know, but there was no offer to let us look at how their claims call centre operates, where policyholders lodging claims were steered to approved repairers who toed the line with IAG and kept thei repair costs down to rock bottom. The way claims were dealt with by the call centre operation was at the centre of the court ispute, but there was no way journalists covering the case were going to see how the call centre operates when policyholders crashed their cars and what options policyholders were given in their choice of repairer.

Spinners have long regarded themselves as the gatekeepers of companies, executives and information. But they are mistaken if they think that their controlling tactics assist their employers to get their message out or if tactics like the above enhance communications between media and companies. Those tactics just put journalists off side and makes them more determined to find other ways of obtaining the required information.

Attributing comments made by spin doctors and naming them is definitely one way of making them more accountable for their actions.

Regards, Anne Lampe

Three cheers for Anne Lampe

A jargon watcher writes:

Why not take Anne Lampe’s suggestion of naming spin-uttered comments a step further by introducing a polcy of always revealing when a story has had spin added to it.

Surely most journos would not want their yarns to be appended with an addendum like “Some material for this story was supplied by spinner X or spin company Y,” and we could make it harder for flaks to pollute public debate with their “key messages.”

In defence of corporate spindoctors

A corporate spindoctor writes:

Dear Crikey, I find it ironic when journalists from big media companies like Anne Lampe complain about the activities of corporate spindoctors. Well hello. As Crikey has often chronicled, every major media organisation has their own spindoctors doing exactly the same thing – protecting their brand.

That is not saying that all corporate spindoctors are angels, just pointing out the media’s hypocricy. Fairfax, News Ltd (recently recruited from James Hardie), ABC, 7, 9, 10 have all got them trying to put the best spin on both positive and negative stories.

And let’s not hear any pious comments from journos that what the corporate guys do in their company is nothing to do with them, they’re just journos there to write the news as it happens. Rubbish. They’re part of the same company and get paid out of the same payroll.

And don’t get me started on spin in journalism, where political policy changes are always “massive backflips” mild management disagreements are always “vicious internal brawls” and good old stuff ups are always massive conspiracies.

Why not start a list of the biggest media beat-ups of the year.

Not Happy

Who makes a good corporate spindoctor?

Brisbane’s First Lady of Spin, Lady Clayfield Ascot-Hamilton, cannot keep her nosey self out of the Lampe-inspired debate about “corporate spin”:

I recently advertised for a low-level PR job for a client, with a focus on “media relations”. It is amazing how many working journalists applied for the job, with most applications suggesting the job would be a natural extension of their experience as reporters. Few if any would have told their colleagues, of course.

I have generally found journalists to be very poorly trained in the understanding of the corporate world. They are taught to be cynical and suspicious of “spin”, and the crusty old hacks who teach at University journalism schools instill in them a belligerent attitude that perpetuates the “us versus them” myth. They also manage to largely delude themselves into thinking their own master-salve relationship to the manipulative machinations of their own employers (News, Fairfax, ABC, Nine, etc) is somehow more honourable because they are “journalists”.

When dealing with journalists – particularly on complex financial stories – I have always found this ingrained cynicism and almost deliberate ignorance of the methodologies of corporate persuasive strategy to be a major advantage, and a fundamental reason why, in 20 years of hiring and firing, I have rarely employed a journalist directly from a media outlet.

When assessing candidates for PR jobs these days, I am just as likely to hire an engineer, a storeman, an accountant or a waiter. Chances are they’ve had more “real world” experience, know how a business operates, and are not blinded by outdated ideology and political rhetoric.