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New Zealand's 'toughest PR Challenges 2021'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The COVID-19 traffic light system has been identified as the nation’s toughest PR gig for 2021, according to Wellington based consultancy Blackland PR.

COVID-19 challenges dominated the rankings, accounting for half of the top 10. Vaccines and the Delta lockdowns were the second and third highest challenges.

"This was an especially challenging year for people tasked with communicating the government’s pandemic response. Communicating the traffic light system, vaccines and delta lockdowns were some of the toughest PR challenges imaginable - you wouldn’t wish them on your enemy," Blackland PR Director Nick Gowland said.

"Each scored a near, or close to, perfect storm score for public profile, emotional reaction, impact and complexity.

"The thorniness of these challenges mirror the fact that the most of the Government’s pandemic responses break new ground. That means anticipating five million different reactions and finding ways to persuade every person to understand and implement the traffic light system, take the vaccine, or adhere to lockdowns.

"The traffic light system was toughest because it impacted New Zealanders decision making about personal health, who, how and where they socialise with others, and, for many businesses, which customers they can have on their premises.

"Deep psychological factors are also in play. It’s very challenging to communicate complex policies and science when people are fearful for their health and for their families and friends."

BlacklandPR uses a scoring system that ranks issues out of 10 for four factors - Impact (how many people are consciously affected directly or indirectly), Profile (media coverage and ‘talkability’ in everyday life), Emotion (the intensity of emotional reaction), and Complexity (complications and technicalities of the issue).

In previous years BlacklandPR’s PR Challenges list has been headed by events such as Roastbusters, the Fonterra botulism issue, the Flag Referendum and the Capital Gains Tax.

A year of complex issues with responsibility unclear

Mr Gowland said the year marked the first time that public, political and media reaction to a large number of high-impact incidents were muted by realisation of their complexity.

"Timber shortages, cyberattacks and power blackouts were notable issues for the year. These were all issues arising out of a multitude of factors.

"This year organisations were absolved of responsibility for events they would previously have taken serious blame for - because people were more prepared to understand and forgive. This was probably largely due to Covid sapping the energy and attention of most of us.

"The September cyberattacks brought down websites, apps and online transactions systems for many of the nation’s banks and financial services companies. On social media, customers were anxious but weren’t getting much information. Most of these organisations couldn’t admit they were victims of a cyberattack and instead deferred responsibility to CERT NZ."

Mr Gowland said Blackland had developed the PR Challenges list to illustrate how issues were rarely black and white matters.

"While we’re happy to see an end to the blame-game. We worry that the ability to escape responsibility could leave voters, consumers and the public very frustrated."

Issues fade quickly from people’s memories

The intensity of people’s emotional reactions to Covid-19 and the volume of decisions communicated by Government, meant other issues that would normally rank highly were buried from people’s attention.

"In a normal year the March Waikato DHB cyberattack would rank first on our annual list. It was of huge public interest over the many weeks it crippled medical services in the region. But it quickly faded from people’s attention as even bigger Covid news replaced it.

"The same can be said with attempts to partially sell the All Blacks in first quarter of this year. It’s an iconic national institution. Lots of people had an opinion on it at the time but, despite the issue not being resolved, few are talking about it now."

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