Pacific spying, John Key and the media

Posted March 5, 2015

How well has John Key dealt with the media over Nicky Hager’s announcement about the GCSB spying on our Pacific neighbours? In my opinion, about as well as possible.

Firstly, the decision to publicly deny any wrong-doing before Hager released his story was a good PR move. Why? Because this allowed him to get on the front foot and get his side of the story out before Hager hogged the headlines.

This is something we discuss with our media training clients. Often it’s best to release bad news (some would call this bad news), before anyone else. This allows you to control the story initially, get your argument covered without influence, while you also come out more credible than if you wait to be contacted. In other words, it’s often best to be proactive rather than reactive.

What about Key’s decision not to discuss the story in any more detail. Normally this would be a bad idea. It would mean that all the media coverage would be left to the detractors.

But this situation is difficult. I believe there is good reason for keeping an eye on the Pacific Islands. It’s a very unstable area. Look at coups in Fiji, Civil War in East Timor, the recent troubles in the Solomon Islands and the growing Chinese influence. That’s not to mention the terrorist threat. I would be far happier holidaying in Fiji with the confidence that someone is monitoring whether known terrorists are in town preparing a Bali-style attack.

But a Prime Minister can’t publicly say any of this. That would cause far more serious diplomatic problems than the spying itself. Imagine the offence that would be taken if he singled out a specific country or showed concern at the Chinese influence. Vital information may have already been found. A terrorist plot could have been foiled. But he can't say that. So all he can say is that it is being done for good reason.

That leaves an open playing field for the opposition. So what should he do? He could still front the media and repeat the same old statement without much detail. At least that would balance up the coverage.

The other thing I would advise would be to get other non-Governmental experts to put his case for him. This would get the reasons for the spying into the public arena without officially coming from the top. Time will tell how this plays out.

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

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