Public education/information – a part of history
While the majority of PR work has a commercial motive, it’s satisfying to be involved in some work that touches the fabric of a nation.
Such was my privilege during a five year period in the1990’s when heading Network in New Zealand I led the pitches for, won, and then directed the PR components of two major public education and information campaigns and a large public consultation project under the purview of the New Zealand Government.
What was significant was that, while all three were funded by the Government of the day, they were run by, and we reported to, independent panels of ‘experts’ from business, academia, the community and the trade union movements. Politics was strictly left on the sidelines.
The first referendum set New Zealand on a path that has influenced the course of its history – by changing the voting system from the first-past-the-post ‘Westminster’ system to a new system called MMP (mixed member proportional).
The 1992 ‘Indicative Referendum’ contained two questions. The first asked voters whether they wanted to retain the first past the post (FPP) or to change the voting system. Change won overwhelmingly, with the support of 84.7% of the voters.
The second question asked voters to choose between four change options: supplementary member (SM), then only used in South Korea; single transferable vote (STV), as used for the Australian Senate; mixed member proportional (MMP), as used in Germany; and preferential voting (PV) as used for the Australian House of Representatives. MMP won hands down with 70.5% support.
The outcome of that indicative referendum triggered a second binding referendum just over a year later where voters were given a final choice between FPP and MMP. The rest – for better or for worse – is history; New Zealand currently has an MMP voting system.
The second public referendum of this type was less momentous, but still quite unique. Given the low savings history of New Zealanders, and concern about the adequacy of retirement incomes, ‘The Compulsory Retirement Savings Scheme Referendum of 1997’ asked New Zealanders whether they wanted a compulsory savings/retirement scheme. The answer was a resounding – no. The result being that New Zealand still has one of the lowest private savings rates in the Western World.
Both these referenda were classic public information campaigns. No promotion of any single option was permitted – all communication had to be unbiased and strictly non-political.
The PR was comprehensive, involving setting-up a national ‘Information Office’ and utilising a full range of techniques, including multi-lingual materials, public meetings and debates, the supply of ‘experts’ to encourage responsible media reporting – from political media in the capital and national TV to local community newspapers. In both instances we worked in an integrated way with an advertising agency.
Between those two referenda – in 1994 – I/Network were fortunate to be chosen to handle the communication around a major public consultation program called ‘The Prime Minister’s New Zealand Employment Task Force’. Run at a time when long-term unemployment was emerging as a real issue this Task Force, headed by banker Sir John Anderson, engaged with New Zealanders up and down the country to get input and to try and find solutions and answers.
The communication challenges were significant. We had to reach out to New Zealanders and get them to participate and contribute – and in doing so overcome suspicion and scepticism. We then had to feed the conclusions and outcomes back to the community, to validate the process and show that their participation had counted. It was grass-roots and community communication at its purist. And some real initiatives came out of it.
They were three very worthwhile exercises. Nice to balance the commercial aspects of PR!