Communication strategies have become an integral part of government work. But in a three-part series, Kate MacNamara looks at instances where the cause of communication has become bogged down in pirouettes and murky revelations.
2: The Three Waters Public Information Campaign
Government officials refused to disclose the price paid for a controversial communications strategy they commissioned for his Three Waters Reform Program, which recommended focusing first on ’emotional marketing’ rather than a more campaigning traditional “information first” type of public service type.
The resulting $4 million “public information and education campaign” ultimately failed in its main objective – to win, through public support, the voluntary adherence of local councils to the reform program of the government for rainwater, wastewater and drinking water.
The paid advertising component of the campaign also prompted warnings from the Public Service Commission that the work was of concern in light of government advertising guidelines which state that such work should only be carried out to meet an “identifiable and justifiable” need for information.
The strategy was provided by Kim Wicksteed, consultant and former managing director of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand. A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs (DIA) declined to provide the cost of Wicksteed’s work and insisted the question be asked under the provisions of the Official Information Act (OIA); a response is likely to take at least a month.
The publicity campaign that followed last year was lambasted by local government officials, some of whom denounced it as “alarmist” and “propaganda”.
Stuart Crosby, chairman of local government group Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), declined to comment on Wicksteed’s strategy. But he called the DIA’s ad “provocative” and said the campaign “has raised mistrust from the local government community…and challenged good faith agreements councils have made. LGNZ provided important information on this subject to the DIA and to the Minister. [of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta].”
Wicksteed’s strategy recommended: “Unlike other public service campaigns that require an information-driven approach, we need to define the challenge and get the country to support these reforms.
“This will require inspirational and emotive marketing that rises above the details and positions the collective task, ‘the most significant upgrade to our water system ever,’…a challenge that will require the goodwill and collective unity for the good of our future generations.”
The document also warns against “the parochialism of local governments”. Under the heading “Communication Challenges”, the document warns: “As seen in various attempts at regional amalgamation, local government can become tenacious and provocative when it disagrees with a management that may reduce its control or compromise its local decision-making.”
A briefing paper to Mahuta in December 2020 said Wicksteed’s work “represents the initial thinking and [the] potential reach” of a national public information campaign.
The same briefing noted that progress on water reform – which aims to transfer ownership of local water infrastructure to four larger bodies and thereby improve its delivery – was likely to prompt councils , especially the small ones, to oppose it.
“A public information campaign, directed at the general public, will facilitate a more conducive landing space for councils in their consultations with communities. This would reduce the potential risks of councils withdrawing from the reform program and provide a more high level of confidence in their continued voluntary participation and therefore of the success of the reform program itself,” the briefing states.
According to Wicksteed’s advice, a 2021 ad campaign promoting the need for Three Waters reform (produced by creative agency FCB New Zealand) was aimed squarely at evoking an emotional response rather than providing information.
The ad, which aired on TV, in print and online, featured among its cartoons a drooling child swimming, a sick duck and other dirty, unhappy creatures; he also warned against “bad guys in the water”.
A Public Service Commission spokesperson said the department was not involved in the development or launch of the advertising campaign.
He “raised concerns” with the DIA about the campaign’s first TV ad. As a result, the DIA changed its second announcement and completely dropped a third “proposed draft.”
The commission’s concerns centered on the risk that the campaign might defend government policy rather than explain policy.
Wicksteed’s strategy is dated December 2020, the same month Cabinet agreed to “a nationwide public information and education campaign” for water reform and earmarked $4 million for water reform. lead.
In response to an OIA request, Internal Affairs declined to provide a cost breakdown. The ministry said it ultimately intends to release a cost breakdown.
A special unit within the DIA is leading an ambitious government plan to merge council-owned water infrastructure into just four regional bodies. However, while Wellington originally promised local councils would be free to opt out of the scheme, the government now says it will force the removal of water assets in the new bodies through legislation it plans to introduce. introduce later this year.
Some 29 local councils – out of the 67 authorities concerned – have banded together to oppose the reform.
An October 2021 report prepared jointly by the DIA, LGNZ and the professional association of local government officials, Taituara, found that at the end of an eight-week “engagement period” with councils locals, some 75% said they did not support the proposed model for Three Waters reform presented by the government.
A spokesperson for Mahuta declined to answer questions about Wicksteed’s advice. The spokesperson said the ministry has the relevant information and is the appropriate office to respond to it.
The government says divestment from council water resources is necessary to stay ahead of lagging infrastructure investment and to consistently deliver good water services across the country.
The Wicksteed document, the October report and the briefing documents were released late last year under the provisions of the OIA.
IN THIS SERIES:
• Part 1: “Social listening reports”: why does the government not publish them?
• How the government targeted selected academics in its Covid response