Key's SkyCity comment highlights need for consistent message

Posted February 12, 2015

John Key fell into a classic media trap yesterday with his comment that the new International Convention Centre could look like an Eyesore if more money is not found. It showed how important it is to stay on message and make sure that all spokespeople are singing from the same song sheet.

The first mistake was not coordinating a consistent message with others who would be asked to comment on the issue. Bill English and Steven Joyce were saying that contributing to the cost overrun was their least preferred option, but they would listen to SkyCity’s concerns. That sounds reasonable.

But when the PM said the building could look like an eyesore without more funding, the media and others assumed he meant the Government would get its chequebook out. This may not have been what he meant, but remember the media will only take little snippets from interviews and build stories around those. The assumption they took from Key’s comments was that the taxpayer would folk out the extra 130 million. It was from there that the story took on a life of its own.

The comment also gave the media another angle. That was that the Government was sending mixed messages about the issue. In other words, Joyce and English were against helping SkyCity, while Key was in support. Soon they must have got together and Key changed his message to reflect what Joyce and English had been saying. But the horse had already bolted. 

If he had consulted with them before talking to media, he probably wouldn’t have made the ‘eyesore’ comment in the first place, and all spokespeople would have been pedalling the same message.

None of this was obviously intended by the Government. But it shows how quickly journalists can jump on specific comments and find inconsistencies. This need to stay on message (and avoid ‘eyesore’ type comments) is something we focus on heavily in our media training workshops. It only takes a five second stray to cause a media frenzy. Just ask former BP CEO Tony Hayward after the BP oil spill. Among some very good comments, he said “I want my life back.” Remember what the media focused on after that.

We also tell our media training clients to have a single spokesperson per issue, unless it’s unavoidable. Clearly this isn’t possible with a Government, but ministers should still make sure a consistent message is communicated by everyone.

For more on my media training workshops, contact [email protected] or 029 200 8555.

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