17 May 2013

143 spin doctors but precious little info

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Written by Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 17 May 2013

Retreat on mayor’s compact-city vision shows failure by PR staff to inform communities from the outset.

It took weeks to get local rundowns on proposals for zones such as Takapuna

It took weeks to get local rundowns on proposals for zones such as Takapuna

On Tuesday, Auckland Council issued a rather plaintive rebuttal of the “misinformation” that was being spread regarding the draft Auckland Unitary Plan. The “myths”, we were told, were “causing misunderstanding and unnecessary concern amongst our communities”.

The next day, Mayor Len Brown was in full retreat, signalling a major rethink of parts of the plan, particularly about the proposed siting of high-rise apartments. While it’s too early to suggest these are signs the battle for an intensified city is lost, it does indicate it’s going to take more than a myth-breaking press release to persuade “our communities” Mayor Brown’s vision is the way to go.

If there is misinformation abroad, there’s a simple explanation. When you have an information vacuum, the laws of nature ensure it quickly fills up with gossip, rumour and, for want of a better word, misinformation.

Auckland Council and its assorted council-controlled organisations employ more than 143 in-house communications and marketing staff, along with many outside contractors in the same field. Orakei councillor Cameron Brewer recently denounced it as a $30 million-a-year “out of control” PR machine.

But out of control or not, there’s been no sign of this great army of wordsmiths having any part in the selling of the mayor’s career make-or-break vision. Instead, it was left to the planners. Now I’ve got nothing against planners. I’m sure they’re very nice community-minded folk. But when it comes to public image, they rank at the bottom of the trust and confidence graph, with journalists, used-car salesmen and politicians. Firemen and ambulance drivers and other forms of cuddliness they are not. They’re the whipping boys for past ills, the Hobson St student stalags, the historic-building demolitions, the cuts into old volcanoes …

Yet the spin-doctors have left it to planning manager Penny Pirrit to not just produce the plan, but also to join Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse as the two-headed sales team.

At a pre-launch briefing for media, one of my colleagues suggested it might be a good idea to produce local brochures so people could get an informed rundown of what was planned for their area. It took about six weeks for something along these lines to dribble onto the plan’s website. Little wonder the dreaded “myths” had begun circulating.

Aucklanders were expected to access the 1854-page new blueprint for the world’s most liveable city via the internet. But the only way in was through a website designed by planners for planners.

Now, I pride myself on being a bit of of an early adopter. Before the invention of the internet, I’d learned to fire my columns from my home computer directly into the old Sun computers. But each time I approach the electronic Unitary Plan, it’s with a certain dread. Yesterday, I typed in my street address and clicked search. Nothing happened. There are two different search buttons, so I tried the other. Still nothing. Each time, it was like I’d had a stroke and the bit of brain that knew how I’d got in last time had been destroyed. I tried the ENTER key and, finally, I was inside.

Anyone who’s been there knows how complex it can be. The shop next to me is protected, like the rest of the street, as a “historic heritage place”, then rather superfluously has a pre-1944 demolition control. Then to totally confuse, it is also zoned “local centre”, which permits four-storey buildings. It’s also in TVNZ’s “satellite earth station transmission path”.

Ideally, my neighbourhood would have had a brochure or been directed to a website where one of the 143 spin-doctors had outlined what was going on in our area. This should have happened across the city and it should have occurred when the draft was launched two months ago. No doubt there would still have been opposition, but at least it couldn’t have been dismissed as misinformed.

The three-month “pre-consultation” period was designed to reach some consensus with the public before notifying the official “draft” document in September. It’s failed in that task. Among councillors, there’s growing support for a “more haste, less speed” approach – delaying notification to after the coming elections to try to reach a vision most Aucklanders can live with. With this week’s back-tracking, a long pause seems inevitable.

Whether it will be long enough for the spin-doctors to catch up is another matter.



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