Using a respected third party to help communicate an issue is as old as issue management itself. But it can always go very wrong, as the Australian Government has just discovered.
Presumably the Federal Government thought it “seemed like a good idea at the time” when they chose science broadcaster Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to promote the 2015 Intergenerational Report, a snapshot of how the nation might look in 40 years. After all “Dr Karl” – the man with the loudest shirts and most unpronounceable name on TV – is an eloquent and passionate commentator on all matters relating to science and the future.
Problem is that soon after launching the multi-million dollar TV and print campaign, the frontman came under attack on social media for supporting the government. He then expressed “deep regret” for promoting the “flawed report” and said it downplayed the impact of climate change. He later declared he would donate his appearance fee to “needy government schools.”
On his weekly TV programme, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt described Dr Karl as “such a global warming extremist that he even stood for election (in 2007) for the Climate Change Coalition, demanding we stop using Coal.” Bolt wondered how he came to be selected by a committee of senior Cabinet Ministers, and asked: “What sort of idiocy is this?”
Now that might be a little harsh, but it’s a legitimate question. What were they thinking? We are told Treasury chief John Fraser authorised the campaign himself, justifying the spending on the basis that it helped “inform consideration of issues.” And what about Dr Karl himself? What research did he do? He insisted that he had been able to read only extracts from the report before appearing in the associated advertising campaign. And he pleaded that he mistakenly thought it would be “an independent, bi-partisan, non-political document.” Really?
However, the details of the report are not the issue here. Nor is the judgement of Dr Karl or his government paymasters. The question is what, if anything, does it tell us about issue management?
In the world of product advertising, problems with celebrity endorsers are not uncommon. Think no further than singer Britney Spears photographed drinking Coca-Cola despite a multi-million dollar deal with Pepsi. Or cricketer Shane Warne photographed smoking while being paid to give up by using nicotine patches. Or when Pepsi dropped advertising featuring Madonna after family organisations expressed concern about it being linked to a controversial pop video.
But hold on. Isn’t promotion by celebrities to sell product different from Government issue management using an acknowledged subject-matter expert in a tax-payer funded campaign to help shape public perception about the nation’s future?
Surprisingly, the Government doesn’t seem to think so. Unlike Madonna’s Pepsi ad, which got pulled, the TV, online and print issue campaign featuring Dr Karl continues to run as if nothing had happened. As if the high-profile presenter speaking to the nation on behalf of the Government had not publicly distanced himself from the very material he is promoting. It’s a remarkable affair, and maybe one day we’ll understand it better.