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February 28, 2021

When the spin doctor becomes the story

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Matthew Knott, Crikey media journalist

Spin doctors, as a rule, prefer to work in the shadows. Getting mentioned – let alone quoted – in a story about a client is seen as a sign of failure. But since John McTernan became the Prime Minister’s communications chief in November 2011, the Scottish svengali has shown a remarkable ability to become the story.

Rather than getting the PM’s communications strategy back on track, public relations experts say McTernan’s headline-grabbing ways have only added to Gillard’s woes.

‘There hasn’t been a communications adviser like John McTernan before,’ veteran communications consultant Sue Cato told Crikey. ‘It’s not unusual for the PM’s communications staff to get caught in the crossfire but this is taking it to a new level. He’s become a key character in the story – and you have to assume it’s by design.’

According to The Australian Women’s Weekly, the idea of photographing Julia Gillard knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby came from the Prime Minister’s office. ‘It was a no-brainer,’ the AWW quotes McTernan saying – a line reproduced on the front page of The Daily Telegraph and The Australian today.

And it’s not the first time. In June 2GB broadcaster Ben Fordham tweeted that McTernan had offered to do a regular spot on his show if Labor loses the election. He denied saying it.

In May McTernan, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, fired off an email to a journalist defending Kyle Sandilands, who regularly interviews the PM. He wrote:

‘Perhaps one day you will know what it is like to entertain and touch the hearts of millions of people like Kyle and Jackie O do every day. And perhaps then you will reflect on the darts of the pygmies who sneer at success.’

In March, McTernan hit the headlines for saying it was ‘hardly f-cking relevant’ if he had been hired on a 457 visa – even though the government was on an Aussie-jobs-first crusade.

Last year, 2GB host Ross Greenwood revealed he copped a bollocking from McTernan after airing a story on Labor’s superannuation changes. ‘I would say in 12 minutes on the phone with him, I reckon the F-bomb dropped at least 30 times,’ Greenwood claimed.

According to crisis management consultant Peter Wilkinson, McTernan has broken the golden rule of public relations. ‘PR people should be invisible,’ he said. ‘There have been a number of cases where PR people take the limelight and it never works out well.’

Gruen Tranfer regular Jane Caro told Crikey: ‘When you have the tactician talking about the tactics it means it’s not working … The most brilliant tactics don’t look like tactics – they feel effortless and seamless.’

Caro describes the Women’s Weekly photo shoot – and the government’s overall communications strategy – as ‘scattergun’, ‘clunky’ and ‘manufactured’. She says, unlike last year’s powerful misogyny speech in Parliament, the knitting shoot and last week’s infamous ‘blue ties’ speech feel contrived.

‘None of it feels genuine – even if it is,’ she said. ‘It feels like they’re taking sharp turns all the time rather than having any coherent narrative.’

The AWW shoot, Caro says, is a poorly-timed distraction from the policy issues Gillard wants to focus on, such as the popular Gonski education reforms and the DisabilityCare scheme.

Sally Young, an expert in political communication at the University of Melbourne, agrees McTernan is a highly unusual figure in Australian political history. ‘It’s seen as bad form to go out there and tout publicity for yourself,’ she said. This is different to the United States, where the President relies on hired guns and an official spokesperson to spruik the message.

Young’s gut reaction to the knitting photo shoot? ‘It’s awful. No one knits in that position. It’s such a formal, staged photo. It’s got so many cliches in it at once,’ she said.

But Young also reckons the Prime Minister was in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position: when Gillard let the cameras into her home, she was famously slammed for having an empty fruit bowl.

Caro is convinced s-xism helps explain why the shoot has been ridiculed by both the mainstream press and social media. But she says this is no excuse for Gillard or McTernan.

‘PR isn’t about justice,’ she said. ‘Communications is not about what’s fair and unfair. If the receivers of the message don’t believe it it’s a failed message. The world is a biased and unfair place: as a communications strategist you have to work through that.’

This article was first published in Crikey.

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