How National's spin doctors operate

Last updated 22:57 05/07/2008

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The poster message looks as though it has been scrawled in lipstick.

"How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?"

In another, the blonde, sensible-looking teacher looks accusingly at the camera. There is extensive bruising around her eye and a cut to her lip.

"Under Labour it's not just pupils that get bad marks," reads the message.

These are the dark maestros of modern political campaigning, Australians Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, in full flight during the 2005 UK elections. Modern parliamentary campaigning doesn't get much more raw, emotional and negative than this.

Now Crosby/Textor are working for John Key too. So just how might they shape National's campaigning style in 2008?

It appears to be an extraordinarily touchy subject for National. Following the Star-Times report last weekend on Crosby/Textor's hiring, Key refused to confirm or deny the company is working for him, despite intense questioning by media over several days.

Key declined a request for an interview with the Star-Times, saying through a spokesman that National's would be a positive campaign.

While Crosby/Textor are known for stirring up deep feelings through their advertising, they are also known for the more mundane but equally essential political art of ensuring discipline within a party. They emphasise restricting messages from the party to a few key lines repeated with monotonous regularity.

There are already signs of a clear focus at work within National. Most strikingly, it is rare to see any other National MP on television apart from Key. Since late last year he has fronted all policy announcements, to the extent there have been any. Senior National MPs, once regular visitors to the Press Gallery with their press releases, have all but disappeared from doing the rounds to promote themselves.

Radio New Zealand has had problems making a programme on National's shadow cabinet because National MPs have refused to be interviewed on their portfolios, saying they have been told they cannot.

And on some rare occasions when senior National MPs do front for comment, the focus still remains on John Key, even bizarrely so. In a June 22 appearance on TVNZ's Agenda programme, National's justice spokesman, Simon Power, managed to introduce John Key into the conversation nine times, with comments such as "as John has said", "as John talked about earlier this year" and "John has said on occasions".

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The result has been a transformation in Key's mana and mystique. Last year, many of the public felt they did not know John Key. Now he has been built up so that he rivals Helen Clark in stature.

Whether Crosby/Textor, National's own strategists, or Key himself, are responsible for overseeing the disciplined internal campaign that has brought about that change is not yet known.

Some have attacked investigative journalist Nicky Hager for raising the Crosby/Textor issue in the Star-Times, saying pungent campaigning is simply the nature of politics.

But Auckland University political studies senior lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment, who was in the UK for the 2005 campaign, believes the company is a special case.

She says Crosby/Textor have the potential to put a strong, and potentially divisive, imprint on National's election campaign in the next four or five months.

"They use a technique called insights marketing, where communication is developed in response to understanding people's deepest values and fears," says Lees-Marshment.

"They are playing on people's real underlying feelings, the feelings they don't articulate in public."

The technique is imported from commercial marketing, where insights marketing may, for example, be used to drum up fear in order to sell burglar alarms.

Crosby/Textor's 2005 campaign for the Conservatives, under the catchline "Are you thinking what we're thinking", included advertising highlighting concerns over immigration and crime.

But such techniques are not always successful.

Crosby/Textor may have helped Australian Liberal leader John Howard win a string of victories, but the Tories lost in Britain in 2005. And negative campaigning that is too strong can trigger a backlash.

Lees-Marshment questions whether an intensely negative campaign that plays on New Zealanders' fears will be necessary for National, when it is already regularly registering at 50% in the polls.

She says a positive and upbeat campaign makes perfect sense at this stage for National. "Crosby/Textor's history doesn't mean they're going to repeat that approach this time in New Zealand," she says.

However if National does plan to develop attack themes in its campaign, her pick would be that Crosby/Textor will be looking at probing and then exploiting people's fears about the economy.

"They may say, you could lose your house, or you could lose your job. They may say milk has gone up by this amount, meat has gone up by this much."

But aren't these perfectly legitimate political messages to run?

Up to a point, says Lees-Marshment. Where she takes issue with Crosby/Textor is that its advertising can be so simple, and so powerful, that it can stir up fears without offering any solutions. Do too much of that, she says, and you are well on the way to stirring up political disillusionment and disengagement.

There have been leaks to journalists, presumably from National, emphasising that Crosby/Textor have been used by not just Key and former leader Don Brash, but also former National leaders Jenny Shipley and Jim Bolger.

The suggestion is that with such a long pedigree with the National Party, Crosby/Textor have been part of the New Zealand political landscape for many years already.

Former Bolger press secretary Richard Griffin confirms Crosby/Textor have been used by National for many years.

But he says they were not an important part of National's campaigning, in part because their ideas were seen as too extreme.

He says in 1996, they wanted to mount personality-based attacks on National's opponents, despite the fact that was the first MMP election, and National was preparing for the possibility of governing with some of its former political opponents.

"Jim Bolger gave me the impression that he wasn't comfortable with them and they left me with the impression they thought we were all a bit wet behind the ears," says Griffin.

"They were brash, and they were more aggressive than I was used to, and they were more personality-focussed. I was very uncomfortable with the fact they were targeting others in the race that we might well have to talk to after the election, particularly Helen Clark and Winston Peters."

Griffin says Bolger turned down some radio advertisements Crosby/Textor proposed that would have personally attacked Clark and Peters.

"Jim Bolger was continually reminding them, and me, that don't forget this is a new era, and we're going to have to talk to people after the election," says Griffin.

"They didn't quite seem to understand the New Zealand psyche."

And he says that if National is now contemplating using any of Crosby/Textor's more extreme campaigning options, they should think again.

`I think Key's personality will probably win them the election, and they'd be foolish to go past that."

 

- Sunday Star Times

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