God knows how the SST thinks it is front page news that the National Party uses focus groups and advisors that Nicky Hager doesn’t like.

They breathlessly report:

An April 2005 Crosby/Textor report described how the focus group questions probed for latent negative “hesitations or concerns” about her. “Regardless of your overall view of Helen Clark,” the moderator asked, “what would you acknowledge are her weaknesses at the moment, even if they are slight or begrudging weaknesses?” The report’s “strategic opportunities” section concluded that the research revealed “an emerging perception that Helen Clark is too busy with `minorities’ and `other people’ to worry about the concerns and the pressures on `working families’.”

This is of course normal fare for parties, but only front page news if done by National. I blogged back in February how Labour were testing attack lines in their polling. And I concluded:

So that poll, presumably on behalf of Labour, was entirely legitimate as a form of message testing.  They were trying to find out which attack lines on Key will have the most effect on reducing National’s support, and conversely which lines about Labour will be most effective at increasing support for them.

Yet the SST thinks that it is front page news that National does the same thing.

But wait you say, isn’t the issue that the firm is Crosby/Textor who were associated with Don Brash.

Well no, that is crap. I am going off memory but Mark Textor has been giving advice to National since the 1993 election. So 2008 would be the 6th election where he has been involved. So what is the news value in National having the same advisor as the last five elections?

Matthew Hooton aptly summarises the situation on National Radio yesterday describing Nicky Hager as the Patricia Bartlett of NZ politics – wanting to be the moral guardian of NZ, yet he himself is a political activist himself.

Even Russell Brown has a reasonable balance:

A sense of perspective is worthwhile here. Political strategy is a cynical business by its nature. Labour’s people were not appealing to higher ideals when they ran the “slippery” campaign against Key this year. Even the Greens once (in 2002) hired themselves an electoral shitkicker from Australia.

Adam Smith also weighs in:

Predictably the Hager árticle’ in the SST had all the usual left voices acting as if John Key had been found indulging in an act of bestiality, rather than doing what politicians do, that is acting rationally and legally in taking advice from a variety of sources on how to win.

That is what party leaders are supposed to do – win elections.

Textor and Crosby are centre right campaign and research advisors. In some countries they actually run the campaign (such as in the UK), while in NZ (as far as I know – I am not privy to exact details) their role is far less. National has its own Campaign Manager and campaign staff.

The only documented wrong doing was an alleged push poll in 1995 – 13 years ago. Now I think push polls have no role in politics or market research (but make sure you do not confuse push polls with testing attack lines) but their real sin seems to be that they are often sucessful, rather than one mistake in 15 years.

The Hive also highlights an apology to Crosby and Textor from Crikey in 2007.

David Cohen notes that Crosby Textor offered some blunt advice last year to Australian Liberal Party:

Still, last year’s Australian federal election campaign does offer a useful test of the article’s overall judgment.

This was the same federal election, of course, in which at least one political pr outfit famously advised the ruling Coalition that it had left voters disillusioned over broken promises and dishonesty, even while Labor leader Kevin Rudd was acquiring a deserved reputation as compassionate, human, genuine and likeable. .

Excellent advice, that; honest, open and straightforward, too. Unfortunately for Hager, it also came from Crosby/Textor

Colin Espiner also looks at the fuss:

So far National’s leader John Key has not denied he is using Crosby Textor, and indeed his staff are confirming it, off the record. National is playing down Hager’s story, and indeed there is a “so what?” component to it. More than 70% of respondents to a Stuff poll this morning agree with them.

Let’s be honest – all political parties use polling companies and image consultants if they can afford to. Labour uses UMR. The companies road-test ideas, probe communities for hot-button issues, test the weak spots of opponents, and help political parties form an attack plan for election campaigns.

Colin then looks at Crosby Textor specifically:

However I think his decision to continue using Crosby Textor was a mistake, for a number of reasons. If he was trying to rid the party of the remnants of the Brash years, why use the same image makers? Why use a company that has a controversial reputation in Australia and Britain? A company that has been involved in scandals such as push-polling over a candidate’s mythical support for abortion to the ninth month of pregnancy? Who wants to be involved with a company tied up with stories about baby killers and the children overboard fiasco in Australia?

On top of all this, for all its fearsome reputation, Crosby Textor’s results are mixed at best. It has advised National in its last four campaigns. National has lost three in a row. It advised John Howard last year. Howard lost. It advised Michael Howard in Britain. Howard lost. Its sole recent success was Boris Johnson in the London mayorlty, and Red Ken was history after introducing the congestion charge.

I think Colin is off the mark here somewhat. First of all it is simplistic to judge campaign advisors simply by the result. Minor little things such as leaders, policies, political and economic environment all affect the result – not just the campaign. In the US people like Bob Shrum are well respected as campaign managers despite not having advised a winning presidential campaign.

But even if one does want to look at results, then Colin should not just quote the 2007 election loss for Australia but also the four previous wins. Likewise in NZ, Mark Textor had a role (going off memory) in the 1993 and 1996 election campaigns, so their record is a positive one, and the fact they are in demand is because they are very good at what they do.

The real irony is that I have heard from a friend of a friend who has taken part in a recent focus group for what was obviously the Labour Party. The entire thing consisted of testing attack lines against John Key. They were left in no doubt that Labour will be using their research to try and undermine John Key on all fronts. Watch this space.

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