How WikiLeaks revealed a ‘secret’ issue management plan

It’s not often the world gets to see inside a confidential issue management plan. But when that happens, it sometimes exposes a strategy which probably sounded great at the Board table, but maybe didn’t look so great on the front page of the newspaper.

The latest major plan to leak was the scheme hatched by US activist PR man David Fenton to fight the influence of Rupert Murdoch over climate change denial, and to go after two of his major news outlets – the Wall Street Journal and Fox TV.

The proposal was to use guerrilla tactics, civil disobedience and targeted advertising to put Murdoch “on the defence” on climate change, and to make it possible for conservative politicians to be able to support positive action on reducing global warming. It was launched in the US to influence the Republican convention, and also proposed similar activities in Australia and the UK.

The $US2 million plan to directly challenge climate change reporting in the Murdoch media was exposed in the massive flood of emails hacked from the account of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and published by WikiLeaks. In the heat of the election campaign and the furore over hacking, this divulged issue management strategy was overshadowed by much bigger revelations. But the plan itself makes interesting reading.

The document sent to Podesta (reproduced in full here) detailed elements including:
• A series of climate science advertisements in the Wall Street Journal
• Television and social media advertising
• Hidden funding for Greenpeace and other activists to target Murdoch and his businesses
• Soliciting and promoting supportive statements by opinion leaders around the world
• Targeting Fox and WSJ advertisers to persuade them to withdraw ads
• A campaign to embarrass News Corp and Fox board members and top executives.

Fenton PR subsequently proudly promoted the science print-ads which were run, and their television advertisements. But it appears they did not formally proceed with the plan to “Replicate these and other relevant tactics in Australia and the UK.”

This isn’t the first time an issue management plan has leaked, and certainly won’t be the last. Look no further than the secret strategy to combat Government efforts to limit gambling on poker machine which Clubs Australia accidentally posted on their own website. Anti-gambling campaigner Senator Nick Xenophon called the document a “smoking gun” which showed they had misled the Government and the public.

Sometimes it takes years for such secret plans to surface. Consider the revelation just last year of a strategy by the sugar industry in the 1960s to combat US Federal research on tooth decay. It came to light only with discovery of a treasure trove of documents from a former advisor to the industry, which showed they knew sugar played a major role in dental cavities as early as 1950.

And who could ignore the decades-long issue management strategies implemented by the tobacco industry, confirmed in the late 1990s by the release of over six million previously undisclosed documents, extending to about 35 million pages of evidence.

Such cases are a vivid reminder of one of the most basic rules of issue management: Don’t write plans you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper or going viral on social media. Because nothing remains secret for ever.




About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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