The Soapbox – Politics: the relationships that really matter

There are a million different angles for a story on Julia Gillard’s rise to power.

Topics like Twitter, women in politics, Kevin Rudd’s personality, Labor party factions etc will be discussed ad nauseum in the days (and possibly weeks) to come.

Before we progress though, let’s clear up some misconceptions.

  1. She’s not our first redhead PM.  That was Scullin back in the 60s.
  2. She’s not the first PM born overseas.  That was Watson, born in Chile.
  3. Her statements “You may as well ask me am I anticipating a trip to Mars,” or “There’s more chance of me sailing round the world 12 times than becoming PM,” or “There’s more chance of me playing full forward for the Bulldogs than becoming PM,” were clearly hyperbole.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of this saga, that has gone relatively unnoticed, is the fact that ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann has twice broken the biggest political stories of the year.

He was the journalist who broke the spill against Malcolm Turnbull late last year and he was also the journalist who broke the most recent spill ousting Kevin Rudd.

This is no small fry achievement.  To leave the likes of Laurie Oakes, Michelle Grattan and Lenore Taylor wondering “What the hell just happened” is the equivalent of MasterChef, State of Origin and the World Cup suddenly being out-rated by At Home with the Kardashians on pay TV.

When you add this to the fact that today is Uhlmann’s birthday, he’s earned the right to a free drink at the Holy Grail in Kingston tonight.

How did Uhlmann do it though?  How did he manage to leave the rest of the press gallery biting dust while breaking the biggest political story of the decade?

The answer is simple.  He knew the right people, and they felt comfortable in talking to him.

As someone who works in PR, I’ve been taught to never EVER say anything off the record.  You only ever say something you’d feel comfortable seeing in print.

Things work very differently in the halls of Parliament House.  Part of the problem is that both dogs share the same kennel.  If you’re a journalist working at Parliament House, take a stroll of more than five metres and odds are you’ll bump into a politician or one of their staffers.

The problem with this is everyone usually knows everything else.

For instance: all the gallery knew Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans were sleeping together; all the gallery knew Peter Costello never had the numbers to challenge John Howard; all the gallery knew Kevin Rudd looked like Mr Sheen.  When the Government sneezes, the press gallery catches a cold.

To navigate these waters as a press secretary is seriously tricky work.  It’s little wonder that press secretaries often have vastly different reputations and very different modes of operation

Kevin Rudd’s press secretary, Lachlan Harris, had a fierce reputation.  He would try and bully journalists into running a story.  He was very effective at this, demonstrated clearly by Rudd’s control of the 24/7 news cycle… well… until about two weeks ago anyway.

David Luff, John Howard’s press secretary, was a former journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph.  He was widely admired by the gallery who on one occasion took to wearing ‘I love Luffy’ t-shirts.  He understood how journalists operated and tried to engage with them accordingly.

Both men were reasonably effective at their jobs despite their different approaches and experience levels.  The reason for this is that they took the time to build relationships with the journalists they dealt with (albeit through different means).

By building these strong relationships, journalists were (generally speaking) not combative to Harris’ bullying, and receptive to Luff’s approaches.

Ultimately though, Harris’ bullying wore thin with the gallery and they decided to give Rudd a hard time, ultimately leading to his now infamous ‘7:30 Report Land’ appearance.  Once Rudd’s relationship with the press gallery diminished, it’s little wonder his support in the opinion polls followed suit.

Of course there were other factors too, but the implication is clear: don’t take your media relationships for granted.  Fostering healthy working relationships with the journalists you deal with is the key for good public relations.

If you abuse the relationship you have with the press you could well end up in Lachlan Harris’ shoes.

Looking for a new job.

Dylan Malloch

Dylan Malloch is a public relations professional at Sefiani Communications Group and a bit of a political keen bean.

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4 Responses to “The Soapbox – Politics: the relationships that really matter”
  1. Polly Johnson says:

    Awesome post Dylan! It is all about your relationships in this PR/journo game isn’t it – and many others I suspect. Nowhere more so that politics – where would Julia be without her relationships with fellow Labor-ites?

  2. Iain says:

    Great post Dylan – very insightful, especially this bit:

    “the implication is clear: don’t take your media relationships for granted. Fostering healthy working relationships with the journalists you deal with is the key for good public relations.”

    The game is very much give/take, not take/take. Like any relationship it works both ways, and requires effort from both sides to make it work.

    PS – I always thought I recognised K Rudd from somewhere – now I know it’s the Mr Sheen advertisements!

  3. Thanks guys. I think too often us PR folk try and just get stories into publications too often rather than opening our minds to how we may actually be able to help journalists from time to time.

    And Iain, you’ll never look at those Mr Sheen cleaning products the same way now.

  4. elerimai says:

    Ummm…. so Chris Uhlmann is also married to Gai Brodtmann, Labor candidate for the ACT seat of Canberra. She’s been a member of the Labor party for over 20 years and has worked on the hill for just as long… so he does perhaps know the right people.

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