Lesson No 4: Don't hug a corpse

21:26, Aug 21 2014
PATTRICK SMELLIE'S GUIDE TO LIFE: Lesson four ... don't hug a corpse.

All around corporate New Zealand, communications advisers will be looking at the fallout from Nicky Hager's latest book, Dirty Politics, and trying to decide what to learn from it.

Some of the lessons will seem obvious: don't write things in email that you wouldn't want to see in the media; hide your tracks if you're going to indulge in a bit of industrial cyber-snooping; get your story straight before you decide to go public with it; if attack is the best means of defence, make sure your attack can be sustained. Blogs can be useful, but dangerous.

These are all the wrong lessons.

Political polls in the next few weeks may find that nobody outside New Zealand's village-like political scene cares much about the vileness which the book shows gained succour from the Beehive, but those inside the village walls care deeply.

Those people have influence, long memories, and professional and social connections that run right through New Zealand's small population.

So the first lesson is simply this: don't let your client get into this situation.


More specifically: don't do what Jason Ede did.

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The second lesson is that if your boss and you even suspect your staff are indulging in indefensible skulduggery, stop it happening immediately.

The third is that if you work in a place where you can see such activities happening, blow the whistle. It won't be a comfortable experience, but when a culture of skulduggery and complicit silence takes over, the enterprise is often doomed. It deserves to be.

Whatever happens, don't get drawn into such a culture, which will often develop slowly, perhaps even imperceptibly. Even if you didn't create it, you'll be blamed too if it all turns to custard.

The fourth lesson is straight from the hacked emails that inform the Hager book: don't hug a corpse.

In other words, sack people who deserve to be sacked. If you don't take action, you will appear both to know about and to have condoned the activity that produced the corpse.

That's a hard place to come back from, PR-wise, as Prime Minister John Key has found to his cost. His belated censuring of Justice Minister Judith Collins has taken some of the heat out of the running story created by last week's publication of the Hager book, but substantial damage has been done in the meantime to National's previously strong campaigning position and to Key's once formidable personal brand.

Do any of these lessons apply less in politics than in the corporate world?

Everyone dislikes but knows that politics is a bare-knuckle game and that its participants exhibit levels of tribal loathing that would be regarded as a workplace health and safety risk in just about any other place of employment.

So, the answer is that perhaps evidence of a large business undertaking such activity is potentially more damaging than disclosure of political scandal.

This is where Hager's propensity for the odd dirty trick of his own is on display.

A master of the hanging inference, he has republished emails from wannabe PR consultant Carrick Graham pitching for work from Fonterra and Nestle which leave open the implication that these companies sought his advice in response to food contamination and obesity issues management respectively.

Yet neither firm sought, let alone acted on, Graham's naive ramblings. Hager's book doesn't make that clear. The opportunity to give a sly but undeserved kicking to a couple of big corporates while he was at it seems to have been too tempting for Hager to pass up.

The fifth lesson is that not all PR advice is created equal. Graham's conduct is at odds with most of my experience of PR professionals, both as colleagues and media contacts, in more than 30 years of kicking around the traps. There's the odd bad apple and the old timer who hasn't worked out that negative campaigns lead to negative publicity for the campaigner.

Positivity and integrity win in the end, although it can be a long journey at times. A final lesson in these circumstances: don't sue.

Mud flung will be cement by the time it's been through a court, where the most florid accusations can be reported without fear of prosecution under the qualified privilege accorded journalists in court proceedings.

None of this is to say Hager is as pure as the driven snow. He is a political activist, as much as an investigative journalist.

He has honed a process for political impact which doubles as a business model by publishing books just before general elections alleging - and generally proving to some extent - political scandals.

That helps sales, boosts Hager's influence and is a masterful bit of spin in itself. It is attack politics, in polite form, and in this case entirely justified by the contents of the emails he obtained. BusinessDesk