It is seldom very smart to brag about how clever you are. And never more so than in the sensitive field of issue management.
But that lesson seems to have been lost on Australian soft drink makers in the midst of the highly controversial issue of whether a sugar tax on fizzy drinks would be an effective measure to combat national obesity.
In its latest Annual Report, the Australian Beverages Council – representing many large soft drink makers – bragged that it had successfully warded off ”any legitimate threat of a discriminatory tax.”
The Council detailed its lobbying efforts with politicians and bureaucrats, claiming success in keeping a sugar tax off the table, and disclosing the creation of a coalition sugar round table to further increase pressure on lawmakers. That might have been a positive message to privately convey to members, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be a winning communication to the very politicians and bureaucrats they need to influence.
Deakin University researcher Dr Gary Sacks told the Sydney Morning Herald he was flabbergasted by how openly the Council spoke about their successful lobbying of politicians. “They usually talk about how they’re part of the solution,” he said. “So to see them openly boasting about lobbying politicians against public health measures is a big surprise. It’s normally behind closed doors.”
Of course Dr Sacks is right. Issue management and political lobbying are legitimate activities. But boasting can bring unforeseen consequences. A notorious case in Australia was in the late 1990’s when Victoria was debating whether to introduce Sunday trading. In the face of what seemed to be legitimate public opinion and grassroots civil disobedience, the Government legislated for shops to open on Sunday. But having cheaply achieved a change in the law, those behind the campaign couldn’t resist the temptation to pat themselves on the back.
A front-page exposé in The Age newspaper carried the headline: “Revealed: how big retailers plotted for Sunday hours.” The story explained that eight major furniture retailers were behind an issue management strategy to deliberately clog the courts with prosecutions in an effort to show that the existing law was “unworkable.” The campaign was successful, but needlessly boasting about it proved a strategic error.
The furniture shops later tried to replicate the campaign to deliver Sunday trading in Western Australia. But they underestimated the consequences of publicly embarrassing politicians. A plan to clog up the courts in Western Australia failed to move lawmakers, and a public referendum also failed. Exposing the manipulation behind Victoria’s law change was certainly not the only barrier, but the bottom line is Sunday trading in Western Australia was delayed for almost two decades.
Confidential issue management strategies sometimes leak – like the scheme hatched by US activist PR man David Fenton to fight the influence of Rupert Murdoch over climate change denial, which was exposed late last year. Or the American Petroleum Institute’s detailed 1998 plan to combat support for global warming, which got posted on the internet in 2015. Or the strategy during the 1960’s by the global sugar industry to block research linking sugar consumption with tooth decay, also exposed in 2015.
However, deliberately revealing your own strategy is quite different. The Australian Beverages Council tried to justify its position by saying they proudly advocate on issues and that “This is not new and hardly a secret.” True, but bragging about your success runs the risk of being seriously counter-productive.