Scott Morrison didn’t need adman Russel Howcroft, but a PR pro

Bringing in an adman to deal with problems created by an adman is a problem, Good Talent Media's David Latham suggests. Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn't need a Russel Howcroft marketing workshop before Christmas, but rather a PR practitioner's advice.

Paul Keating once described former Liberal leader, Andrew Peacock, as “all feathers and no meat”, “a painted, perfumed gigolo”, and a gesture politician with no policy substance, floating conspicuously down the political river to nowhere land.

Scott Morrison – the Prime Minister who cut his teeth in the world of advertising – is in danger of projecting a similar image, and calling in prominent adman Russel Howcroft, as revealed last week, hasn’t helped his cause.

Morrison called upon the industry’s own Howcroft

Just before Christmas, and Morrison’s now infamous trip to Hawaii, the PM’s staff attended a workshop conducted by the Gruen panellist and PwC chief creative officer. While Morrison himself didn’t attend, the AFR reported that the government’s marketing of its climate change policies was discussed, but the workshop was designed to develop sales strategies for 2020.

But for some of us working in PR, the vast superficiality of Morrison’s ad-based response is not only the wrong fit for the bushfire crisis, but the wrong fit for the lion’s share of his work in government.

Ads work well when you’re marketing a simple product or message to a vast audience in a short space of time. Like during an election campaign.

But you can’t run a country hopping from high-gloss statement to high-gloss statement. At some point you have to roll up the sleeves, tuck into the hard policy work, prosecute debates and find a way through thorny issues.

This obsession with short bites that are light on detail has led opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, to lampoon Scott Morrison as ‘the ad man with no plan’.

And it’s seemed to be extremely hard for Morrison to shake the ways of advertising. He released an ad in the middle of the bushfire emergency, and apparently thinks pithy slogans and slick campaigns can help resolve complex problems.

The approach, including Howcroft’s recruitment, reveals either Morrison’s cynical underestimation of the public or overreaching confidence in the power of advertising. Possibly both.

In the world of PR, there’s nothing wrong with memorable sound bites. They often live on beyond the story. Cue Tony Abbott and ‘the shirtfront’ or Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’, and, of course, Albanese’s ‘ad man with no plan’.

PR practitioners encourage clients to use them, and to hone their key messages that will inevitably be shrunk down to a five second grab. But there’s got to be substantive work going on behind the scenes that the messages meaningfully connect to.

The grab is the distillation of a truth or actual policy.

And no amount of political theatre can hide the absence of them.

Bringing in an adman to deal with problems created by an adman is, in itself, a problem.

If Morrison had instead brought in a PR person, they could have told his office that content and action are congruent. If you have a meaningful policy direction, it’s a much easier sell.

So next time Scott, don’t send an adman in to do a PR pro’s job.

David Latham is the public relations manager at Good Talent Media, a PR agency specialising in traditional, social and digital media, and political lobbying


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