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‘Too much water, too few eggs: worst NZ events for 2023’

Events that caused New Zealand’s toughest public relations challenges in 2023 were the Hawkes Bay and Auckland floods, and nationwide egg shortages, according to the 12th annual list compiled by PR company Blackland.

The nation’s top three toughest PR events all related to health and welfare: floods, food shortages and contaminated water.

BlacklandPR Director Mark Blackham said the list was topped by real crises but filled out by contentious moral issues.

“We had events that endangered lives and moral issues that packed emotional punch.

“Floods, food shortages and drinking water quality directly threatened lives and livelihoods, but Posie Parker and vaping got some people very agitated.”

Cyclone Gabrielle was the toughest event to manage because it caused deaths, and hardship for tens of thousands of people across the North Island. This combination caused the strongest emotional reaction, high national awareness, and required a complex response.

Blackham said the impacts of the floods that accompanied Cyclone Gabrielle were almost too widespread and multi-layered for the nation to fully appreciate.

“Despite this age of fast and full information few of us can appreciate the scale of disasters, so there is a tendency to focus on only parts of it.

“When lives are lost, at risk, and under stress, people are shocked and fearful. Continued disruption makes people angry. They look for someone to blame, and because large events always reveal mistakes, there will be scapegoats,” he said.

The storm and floods generated a succession of public relations challenges which featured in the top 30, and throughout the almost 150 events ranked by Blackland. These included the reliability of power and telephone networks, questions over Police management of resident safety, and Auckland Council’s response.

Blackham said the everyday talkability of the nationwide egg shortages early in the year earned a second place in the rankings. The shortage resulted from new animal welfare laws.

“The nation’s supply of a staple food ingredient was essentially disrupted by bureaucracy. Emotions intensified over this issue because it occurred when consumer faith in supply lines had already been severely shaken.”

The third-ranked event concerned potential contamination of Queenstown’s water supply.

Blackham said communication on the issue would have been tough because the whole district had to change behaviour in fear for their safety over the most essential thing: water. In contrast to the immediate danger, identifying the cause of a mystery illness is notoriously difficult and time consuming. This intensifies unhelpful anger.

“We’re all part of the problem as we expend a lot of unproductive energy on finding people to blame way too early into incidents.”

Notable moral issues high on the list included protests over Posie Parker (4th), anguish over vaping (6th), and the conduct of Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau (15th).

Blackham said the Posie Parker protests were a challenge for the Police, who were overwhelmed by the incident, but the issues resonated throughout society.

“This was the first time many ordinary New Zealanders were exposed to gender issues that had been debated in corners of social media. The talkability was very high as public grappled with the topic.”

Blackham said concerns over vaping, particularly of young people, was the longest running issue of 2023, and exhibited all the signs of a moral panic.

“The issue kept popping up in media throughout the year, including the election campaign. Vaping was positioned as a problem, on which many people had opinions and reactions, but few could define exactly what the problem is, nor used facts and evidence.”

Alcohol regularly features somewhere in the annual challenges list, and this year in the form of the Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau who admitted to having a drinking problem.

“There was a nuanced discussion that treated the person at the centre with concern for their welfare. This obscured some legitimate questions, but it would be far better if we could have all such debates with that level of humanity,” Blackham said.

Honourable mentions include the law-and-order response to ram raids, which made the top 10 for its consistent talkability, and the new biosecurity threat in the Asian Gold clam infestation, which was the third most complex PR issue of 2023.


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