The campaigns of New Zealand’s political parties are increasing run by PR and consultancy companies, and this reflects their increasingly similarities and electoral-professional nature. Related to this, David Fisher asks in the latest Listener: ‘Which New Zealand political party has undeclared links to a foreign-based political strategy firm that has been accused of underhand tactics?’ The answer isn’t National and Crosby Textor, but Labour and the ‘Washington-based strategy and technology experts Blue State Digital’. [Read more below]
Blue State Digital
According to Fisher, in the US, Blue State Digital ‘runs the engine behind Obamamania, and claims responsibility for the $US200 million the campaign has raised online and barackobama.com’s “social network” of almost a million people’. One of their employees was responsible for creating the infamous and allegedly under-hand anti-Hillary Clinton YouTube video parody. Blue State Digital also been involved this year with Ken Livingstone’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in London.
It’s not entirely clear what Blue State Digital are doing for the New Zealand Labour Party, and according to Fisher, the party is being tightlipped. The only apparent role the company is playing is providing website tools. If you go to http:nzlabour.bluestatedigital.com you’ll see Labour’s campaign website.
Rise of commercialised politics
The rise of such public relations (PR) consultancy companies in the election campaign epitomises the process of privatisation of politics. This is partly a response to the decline of relationships between the parties and civil society – which has been detailed in previous blog posts. Parallel to the decline of the traditional relationships between parties and interest groups, the parties have been developing new relationships with PR consultancy companies. Bruce Jesson once proclaimed that, ‘These political consultants have become the new mediators in an age of commercialised politics’ (Jesson, 1992c: p.371).
Such a shift is part of the long-term ‘privatisation’ of parties and their activities that has been occurring over the last four decades. Certainly since the 1960s marketing and public relations techniques have been expanding into New Zealand politics, along with a general professionalisation of politics. Jesson says, ‘Public relations, consultancy and polling became increasingly important features of the political process, with a merger occurring between politics, business and the media’ (ibid: pp.370-371).
Labour’s commercialised politics
For the Labour Party organisation, which is increasingly withering away to become an empty shell, it has to find new PR firms to replace its departed party members and weakening and distant unions. Therefore in recent years the party has been associated with firms Edwards-Cunningham Consultants, Communicor, and Consultus (run respectively by the Labour Party-friendly television interviewers Brian Edwards, Simon Walker and Ian Fraser).
Blue State Digital is only the latest variant of this. And it’s not even the first time that Labour has utlised foreign-based PR companies. During the 1980s the party used the Australian McNair marketing research company.
It’d be interesting to know how much Blue State Digital are being paid by Labour for all their website (and other?) activities. Or is it pro bono work by this US Democrats-oriented business? It wouldn’t be the first time that foreign PR and communications firms have intervened in NZ politics. The most interesting would be when the American company Hanna-Barbera allegedly produced the notorious “Dancing Cossacks” advertisements cartoons ‘at cost’ in 1975 for National, as an experiment in political commercials.
Both New Zealand parties are now equally professionalized and privatized. Fisher says that, ‘The discovery of the [Blue State Digital] link points again to similarities between our main parties.’ But interestingly, when Fisher approached Labour about the Blue State Digital link, national secretary Mike Smith replied ‘this is not a Crosby Textor story’. He urged instead for the journalist to investigate National: ‘Get a real story. It’s really big’.
Fisher’s article also details the international political networks that the two main parties move in. For National this is the International Democratic Union (IDU), and for Labour it’s the third way Progressive Governance organisation.