Courtesy: The Australian Women’s Weekly/Grant Matthews
Many of Australia’s most senior public relations executives have questioned the strategy behind a staged photo shoot by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which featured her knitting a stuffed kangaroo for the royal baby.
The photographs, which have been published online today and will be in tomorrow’s Australian Women’s Weekly, have this morning caused a media stir with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph running them under the headline “Spins & Needles”.
“I’m trying to find something positive to say about it but I really can’t,” said Teri-Helen Gaynor, managing director of public relations firm Reputation.
“From a strategic point of view I can see what they are trying to do, which is appeal to a larger female population, and the Weekly is filled with cooking, hobbies and knitting and it is a big selling magazine among women.”
“And I can see why they would put something there, but this is not what should have gone in.”
Sam North, media director of Ogilvy Public Relations, said he thought the story and photo was “too smart by half.”
“It doesn’t fit with everything else we know about her and is too smart by half. They are trying to manipulate an image of her that they hope people are gullible enough to accept,” said North.
A former senior editor with The Sydney Morning Herald, North cites similar attempts by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd which hurt his credibility.
“When Rudd became Prime Minister and he used the phrase ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’ four times in one day, we all said turn it up Kevin. That’s not who you are.
“We thought he was trying to be someone who he wasn’t and this is seems to be the same thing with this photo it’s too staged, it’s too much of an attempt to set up a persona,” he said.
Julia Gillard in the Australian Women’s Weekly Photo: Australian Women’s Weekly – Grant Matthews
Chairman of the Public Relations Council, Stuart Gregor said the photo shoot shows how in the modern media environment there are no longer distinct audiences.
“From a media management perspective I don’t understand what they thought they’d achieve. This whole idea that you can do this shoot for the Women’s Weekly and other things for everyone else is gone,” said Gregor, who is also the founder of PR agency Liquid Ideas.
“This is a brilliant example of how in the modern media environment these barriers (between media) no longer exist,” he said referencing how other media, such as the Daily Telegraph, had picked up and commented on the story and photo.
Today’s Daily Telegraph not only ran the image but included a caption stating that the image was not altered.
“This extraordinary image of the Prime Minister is not digitally altered, but a photo actually arranged by Ms Gillard and her chief spin doctor, John McTernan, for the Australian Women’s Weekly,” the newspaper reported.
When contacted by Mumbrella this morning, editor-in-chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly Helen McCabe said the idea for the shoot had come from the Prime Minister’s office.
“The story is really clear about this,” said McCabe, “we did contact the PM’s office in advance of the election and asked what they wanted to do.
“They rang back and said they would be delighted but what they really wanted her to do is to reveal that she is knitting a stuffed kangaroo for the royal baby. That’s how it came about.
“We did an interview with her as well, and that interview is now online, but the primary point of the story from their perspective was for her to knit the kangaroo and we have carried the pattern as well.”
Feminist and social commentator Melinda Tankard Reist this morning conceded the image appeared staged but defended the Prime Minister’s decision to appear in the photo shoot while knitting.
“The picture does look a little bit staged and a bit contrived however, I would come down on the side that says if knitting keeps her sane then why shouldn’t she be in a photo like that,” said Tankard Reist.
“It’s a nice gesture that she is not sending off some boring Royal Dalton silver, she is putting the time into knitting something which is quite personal. I don’t know that many Prime Ministers would do that.”
However, Tankard Reist also noted that similar images have been taken of other leading politicians.
“Political is all about staged photographs”, said Tankard Reist, citing similar photos of Tony Abbott. “At least this is something she actually does. If she wasn’t a knitter then I think we’d have a problem.”
This perspective has been shared by many on social media sites like Twitter and praised the Prime Minister and criticised some of the media coverage.
Gabriel McDowell, managing director of Respublica public relations, said he thought the photo was unlikely to have an impact on Gillard’s popularity either way.
“I don’t think it will damage her prospects at all but unfortunately I don’t think it will shift the needle — if you pardon the pun — either,” said McDowell.
“I think it was attempt to put her in a different light. Politicians do that all the time, kissing babies, knitting it is a different look for a politician.
“Unfortunately for her, the (media) debate about whether this was a good idea is the least of her problems. Gillard’s problem is that people aren’t listening.”
Gaynor said the Prime Minister could have appeared in a side photo knitting but that the overall focus should have been on her strengths.
“Gillard has been a really strong advocate of women, on female education, a strong performer in Parliament and these are all positives,” said Gaynor.
“I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it but it could have been a side photo with the main focus around the strong women. Leadership, education, being a role model should have been the focus, that is far more important than sitting on a chair knitting.”
Former adman Russel Howcroft, a panellist on Gruen Nation and GM at Network Ten, told Mumbrella: “The strategy is revealing itself. As a result the more sophisticated thinker will not take it seriously.
“It’s targeting a niche audience. But the error is that when you are the PM, there is such a thing as niche media.”