Trust easily lost in age of new media
A few short weeks ago, a nod and a wink that the Government Communications Security Bureau was on top of threats allegedly posed to national security by Huawei telecommunications gear in the ultra-fast broadband roll-out would have been reassuring for many.
Back then, GCSB's proud declaration on its website that it exists for "mastery of cyberspace for the security of New Zealand" might have seemed vainglorious, but not ridiculous.
Now, after the secret spy agency's bungling over the Kim Dotcom affair, it just looks silly.
GCSB has landed its own reputation in the poop, while damaging the credibility of Prime Minister John Key, who was already straining credulity by apparently failing to notice the presence of the flamboyant, super-sized, super-rich Dotcom and entourage in his own Helensville electorate.
It's baffling. Perhaps Key felt he shouldn't take an active interest in Dotcom's residency application or other activities. It could have compromised them both to have the prime minister putting his oar in as the local MP on such matters.
But the prime minister hasn't offered that explanation. Instead, as the endless, dreary scandal morphed into arguments over a top-secret, undistributable GCSB PowerPoint slide and a meeting which may or may not have been filmed, Key's personal performance and preferred leadership ratings have just kept sinking.
That's dramatically demonstrated in the TV3 poll this week which showed his performance rating, while still respectable at about 50 per cent, has slumped from above 70 per cent a year ago.
The direction of travel in other key measures, including whether the prime minister is perceived as honest, are also heading south. It's standard second-term stuff, but it also shows the impact of crises on reputations.
Just ask Huawei. It's still a superpower in telecommunications, but the recent US Senate report accusing the Chinese government-connected company of espionage and other unethical practice has trashed its brand around the globe.
In New Zealand, it does appear that our spies are on top of the Huawei issue, apparently aligning with the views of British spy agencies that Huawei is trustworthy, or at least that its risks are manageable.
The Australians are convinced otherwise, with Huawei's involvement cited as a key reason for the failure of the proposed Pacific Fibre cable, a New Zealand initiative that was to have linked Australia and the US, neither of whom want a bar of Huawei gear.
At the same time as the Social Development Ministry damaged the already shaky trust in government agencies' ability to protect private information, trust in John Key, Huawei and the GCSB have all taken terrible hits.
How timely, then, for law firm Simpson Grierson to support the publication of A Practical Guide to Managing Reputation Risk. Its foreword observes that "reputations have never been more exposed thanks to the emergence of armies of citizen journalists, bloggers and campaigners using new social media channels without the traditional need for balance".
Those comments, from Neil Green, of PR firm Senate SHJ, might as well be commentary on the actions of bloggers in recent days who've exposed wormholes in security for the Social Development Ministry's private client information, as well as hacking the adserver of a well-known website.
The 234-page tome offers advice on how to run an issue involving defamation, the law on misuse of private information, restrictions on publishing in certain contexts, consumer protection, copyright and intellectual property rights, new media risk management, and media codes of practice.
However, as both Green and the author, Simpson Grierson lawyer Tracey Walker agree, once the lawyers and the PR team are in the same room dealing with a crisis, there's inevitable tension.
It's a lawyer's role and instinct to shut comment down, and the PR practitioner's instinct to open right up.
As Green notes: "Usually the fight is worst at the beginning of the crisis. The communicator has a mantra - tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth". He carefully proffers that legal input needs to blend with communications imperatives, not the other way round.
That's partly the bind that Key is in over the GCSB affair. If lawyers are unwilling to be open about the truth, spy agencies are both obliged and pathologically inclined to withhold information. He simply can't defend himself.
In the process, however, his position is eroded.
Put simply, the decline in Key's personal ratings is a reflection of a dawning view that a politician who once seemed quite trustworthy to many may no longer be so.