Meridian Energy and public relations

It is not surprising if you haven’t heard of Project Aqua. It is the largest power scheme planned in New Zealand since the Clyde Dam 20 years ago and already it is controversial in the local area around Oamaru. But a lot of state resources are going into trying to silence the opponents and avoid the inconvenience of genuine public debate.

The state-owned power company Meridian promised that “all interested parties would have ample opportunities to participate” in decisions about the scheme. But instead it has worked aggressively to minimise public opposition in the small communities affected and to avoid critical debate further afield. Here are some examples of Meridian’s tactics.

Meridian has been negotiating to buy land from farmers in the Waitaki Valley, in what is already a fairly one-sided negotiation since the Government gave Meridian compulsory purchase powers over landowners who don’t agree. Yet as part of negotiations Meridian has insisted that the farmers sign away their right to oppose the scheme.

Section 17 of the “Agreement in relation to land” states that “The Land Owner will not, directly or indirectly, object to the granting of any [resource mangement] consent, object to the closing of any road as part of construction of the scheme [or] otherwise object to, oppose or impede any action taken by Meridian … to construct or operate the scheme”.

The agreement even requires farmers not to “fund, facilitate or promote any other person entity or group” objecting to or opposing the scheme. Clause 25 insists that the farmers not divulge the contents of the agreement – including the requirement not to oppose Project Aqua – to any other person. Locals estimate that 20-30 of the farmers most affected have had to sign these clauses.

Roger Slee, dairy farmer and chair of a local irrigation company, says “Meridian talks about consulting but they won’t listen to anything they don’t want to hear…. We’re the citizens, but they think they can come in here and take our river, take our land and just ignore us.”

Or worse. In July last year the general manager of the Oamaru Mail, Rod Bidois, wrote an opinion piece for the newspaper explaining why he was opposed to Project Aqua. At the bottom of the article, it was noted that Meridian chief executive Keith Turner would be putting his case for the scheme in a following article.

This all sounds normal and healthy, but Meridian was angry that a well-respected local figure had been given prominent space to state his views. Its PR people had tried in advance to talk the newspaper editor out of publishing the opinion piece and – according to Meridian insiders – when this failed they decided very deliberately to punish both Bidois and the newspaper to discourage them from future criticism of the scheme.

Meridian wrote to the editor of the newspaper and then to Wilson and Horton, the newspaper’s owners in Auckland, saying it was “disturbed at the extent of the access Mr Bidois apparently has to the Mail’s editorial columns”. It demanded to know why his article had been published and whether the newspaper was aware of his “close personal connections” to the Waitaki River Users Liaison Group (they assumed, incorrectly, that he was a member however his brother-in-law was an office holder). The letter to Wilson and Horton’s chief executive pointedly asked for “clarification of Mr Bidois’ role at the Oamaru Mail”.

Meridian’s opinion piece in reply began with a heavy attack on the newspaper and Bidois. It said that “by not disclosing his personal interests in the debate [Bidois] placed in question his newspaper’s editorial integrity and independence”. It subsequently also made a complaint to the Press Council.

The pressure on Bidois grew. Wilson and Horton wrote to him hinting at commercial ramifications of Meridian’s displeasure. His relations with the company he had worked for for 15 years became strained. Meridian PR manager Alan Seay also brought Wilson and Horton’s southern regional manager, Laurie Coughlan, into the campaign, complaining to him directly about Bidois. All this, remember, just for writing an opinion piece on a local issue.

Later the Press Council accepted that Meridian had been offered right of reply, that it is not normally necessary to declare interests of family members and that Bidois’ piece had been clearly marked “Opinion”. None-the-less, the reliably conservative Press Council upheld Meridian’s complaint on the grounds that there was a “potential” for readers to take the article to be a statement of opinion from the Mail rather than a personal comment from Bidois (the well established line between “editorial” and “opinion” was obviously lost on them.).

You can see how easy it is for the PR people to make a few phone calls, send off heavy letters and cause lots of trouble for the individual under attack. As Meridian had intended, Bidois has not spoken publicly against the scheme again. And everything is deniable.

When asked whether the state company had ever put pressure on opponents to Project Aqua, PR manager Seay said “I’m not aware of any such pressure”. Asked specifically about putting pressure on Rob Bidois through his employers, he said “Absolutely not”. He said he had merely followed the normal procedure for making a Press Council complaint, which requires writing to the newspaper editor first.

This is all reminiscent of the PR tactics of another state-owned enterprise, Timberlands West Coast, in the late 1990s. Timberlands and its PR advisers spent large sums of state money on a secret campaign designed to silence the environmentalists opposed to its native logging – and the National Government of the day turned a blind eye to the tactics because it supported the logging.

Instead of open debate, Meridian has used its Christchurch-based PR company Glass Tower to flood the local media with carefully planned PR releases and advertisements. For instance, when an anti-Project Aqua group called Waitaki First was launched in June this year – with 250 locals present and major concerns raised about the project – Meridian made no comment but instead made its own news release timed to appear in the local media alongside news of the protest meeting.

Meridian’s news was that it was sponsoring a Massey University masters student researching “bio-diesel”, which apparently could lead to all Project Aqua construction vehicles running on environmentally-friendly fuel made from freezing work by-products. The student was quoted saying: “For a company like Meridian, slightly more expensive bio-diesel may be attractive because of its environmental benefits and use of renewable resource.” This is the PR tactic known as “greenwashing”: emphasising trivial positive aspects of a controversial activity while sidestepping the main or most negative aspects. (BP’s Beyond Petroleum advertisements are another classic example of this.)

Glass Tower’s work for Meridian has included cultivating journalist contacts, promoting the good news stories and hosting journalists on free trips to the area to be intensively briefed on Meridian’s case for the scheme. Glass Tower’s website states “We are proud to say that some of our finest work never sees the light of day. And that’s the way it should be.”

I fear that many PR people would regard the state company’s one-sided promotion of the scheme and the efforts of minimise opposition as fair play – based on a Homer Simpson-ish “everybody else does it” morality.

I recently gave a lecture on ethics to public relations students in Auckland, arguing that PR can be an admirable job of helping people communicate well but that there are good reasons why the profession has a bad reputation.

The lecture suggested that there are three main types of unethical PR behaviour. Dishonesty, like lying or misrepresenting who a communication is coming from (eg. ‘independent’ voices that aren’t). Tactics designed to stop your opponents having their say; like Rod Bidois experienced. And keeping inconvenient information secret while pouring out selective information and spin according to the client’s needs. This last one is subtler than the others, because of course ‘not telling the truth’ comes in many shades apart from plain lying.

Public Relations often means this art of selectively releasing and distorting information, making bad news sound like good news or abusing a position of influence by keeping things secret that the public has a right to know. The test is whether the tactics contribute to democratic society or undermine it. Meridian appears to be a good example of the undermining sort.

PR ethics are especially hard to enforce because PR strategies are usually designed to be invisible, their finest work never seeing the light of day. Why worry about niceties when you are unlikely to be held accountable?

But with a state company, doing public business and controlling public resources, can’t the public expect better? Under the state-owned enterprise legislation, decisions on a huge scheme like Project Aqua can be made secretly by Meridian and elected Cabinet Ministers are free of responsibility when state company managers play politics. The answer would be for the Government to bring state companies under public control and insist that they be role models of good corporate behaviour, not just tricky PR.