Covid-19 propaganda in Australia

Lessons from the PR exercises of the Australian government

Recently, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison who is commonly known as “Scotty from Marketing” – in short: Scomo – said, his Covid-19 “exit strategy depends largely on vaccination rates”. This is fine propaganda. Yet it does not match reality. Perhaps it does not have to. Still, PR works brilliantly. Here is public relations expert Scomo’s “why” and “how”.

Scomo’s statement insinuates that he has a “strategy” – which he does not have and does not need to have. As long as his propaganda works, things is fine. Essentially, Scomo’s sentence links three key words. The first word is “strategy”, implying Scomo has a plan, he is in charge, he knows what he is doing. The second word is “large” which links rather neatly to “vaccination rates”.

The fact that Australia does not have a “large vaccination rate” does not really matter. By mid-July, Australia was sitting at a vaccination rate of about 9% – at the very bottom of all OECD countries. Yet this does not matter in public relations. What matters is linking key words to create the perception you want.

One of the true masterminds of modern propaganda is a man very few people have heard of – Frank Lutz. Lutz was the speech writer for none other than George W. Bush. Lutz’s contribution is Words that Work in which he basically says, it is not what you say that matters but what people hear.

And what people will hear in Scomo’s message are three things: a) strategy, b) large, and c) vaccination rate. Link all three to Scott Morrison and a key task of propaganda has been achieved. It creates the right perception for Scomo.

The very same goes for his “pathway out of the Covid-19 pandemic”. This creates the impression that he has everything under control. He has a clear “pathway” which will lead us out of the crisis. The fact that no such pathway exists does not really matter. What matters is linking key words like “pathway” and “out of the pandemic” to Scomo.

All of this is designed to give the key PR term in all of this – “Scott Morrison” – a positive image. Creating a positive image is achieved through linking positive terms to the key term you want to emphasize. The positive connotations linked to Scomo in this way are: strategy, large vaccination rate, pathway, out of the pandemic.

This stuff works. Almost anyone in marketing and public relations knows that. Marketing and public relations are not the same thing. Virtually, anyone in marketing (that sells goods and services for a profit) and anyone in public relations (that creates a pro-business atmosphere that supports capitalism or a certain politician or party) knows that this stuff works.

If it would not work, global advertising and marketing would hardly have spent $US1.278 trillion in 2020 – $1.278.000.000.000. Spending $1.3tr a year is very serious money. This unimaginably large sum includes traditional and digital media.

Meanwhile, the global PR market is valued at about $90bn. Compared to the advertising market, the PR market is much smaller because companies and corporations tend to spend much less on influencing politics (PR) compared to selling products (marketing). The top ten PR firms alone employ 10,000s of people. However, these stealthy firms also like to operate largely in the shadows – unknown to the general public.

Unlike marketing’s goal of selling products and making a hefty profit while doing so, the goal of public relations is much more political. Even before propaganda (negative) was renamed into public relations (positive), the key idea of PR remains the same then as today. This has been outlined by the godfather of PR himself. Edward Bernays once said,

The significant revolution of modern times is not industrial or economic or political but the revolution which is taking place in the art of creating consent among the governed.

and

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

One would expect that marketing-man Scomo – his previous job was marketing – would be perfect to run a sensible government sponsored Covid-19 campaign to control the public mind, as Edward Bernays would say. Yet reality proves otherwise – for the second time. Scomo’s newest Covid-19 ad follows his previous and more infamous blunder of his failed “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.

Even Britain’s BBC and the USA’s CNN reported on Scomo’s latest backlash-causing PR screw-up. In the case of marketing-man Scomo, the Covid-19 ad seems to have created the exact opposite of what is was supposed to achieve. Yet the ad will still influence people.

The final step in understanding how public relations works comes from a 1950s study on conformity. In it, Solomon Asch has shown how easy it is to influence people. Asch demonstrated that people can be influenced to say the exact opposite of what is true. Influencing others is easily done. Hence, the recent phenomenon of influencers parading themselves on online platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc.

As Asch himself said, That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. This is where propaganda, public relations and politicians like the Australian Prime Minister come in.

Scomo promised to “keep the virus out” of Australia. His PR promise is based on Australia’s previous record of having just 914 deaths (mid-July 2021) since the start of the pandemic. By that time, Australia was listed at number 126 out of 222 countries and territories on a global list of Covid-19 fatalities. Yet Australia’s relatively low death rate wasn’t because of Scomo.

It was in spite of Scomo. It is likely that all of this had more to do with the rather remote location of a kind of “island” named Australia floating borderless at the end of the world. Australians know this as the Tyranny of Distance. Yet the (neo)Liberal “do-nothing-caused” calamities and Scomo’s incompetence did not stop here.

By mid-June 2021, Scomo’s conservative counterpart in the state of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, carried on. Recently, Gladys received a lot of media attention for her disgraced ex-lover and then for high-profile new boyfriend. While being boyfriend-wise occupied, Gladys oversaw the vaccination of 163 ineligible school boys residing in the $50,000-a-pop elite boarding school St Joseph’s College. Even Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian – usually very supportive of Scomo and the Liberal party – was forced to admit this much. Turned out it happened ‘by error’ – if one is to believe this.

Despite being presented as a monolithic bloc by Australia’s Murdoch press, the Liberal Party has two opposing wings. Scomo represents the Christian-fundamentalist wing. His off-sider and State Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, belongs to the neoliberal anti-state, anti-regulation, etc. wing of the party. While facing the Coronavirus pandemic which demands global and nation-wide cooperation, strong action by a functioning state, Australia’s Liberal Party is also fighting its government-is-the- problem, No Red Tape, free market, unrestricted competition and No Nanny State ideology. In any case, the officially called Liberal Party has a rather deceptive name.

Their party is the exact opposite of what many in the US understand as liberals. On the whole, the party does not have much to do with a traditional understanding of liberalism either – Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Henry Thoreau, etc.

In truth, Australia’s Liberal Party is more akin to something like the ideological arm of neoliberalism. Most of the party’s elite follows Hayek’s quasi-religious pamphlet to the letter. In any case, Australia’s Liberal Party has two wings who – most of the time – hate each other. The more powerful wing is run by the staunch supporters of Hayek. These are the economically oriented neoliberals. They hate the state, trade unions, and taxes for the rich – but not the poor. The other wing consists of the religious fundamentalists who reach deep into QAnon.

Yet the two wings are forced to work together as long as the man at the gateway between politicians and voters supports them through his media oligopoly. As the father of Rupert MurdochKeith Murdoch once said in front of the then Australian prime minister, I put him there, and I’ll put him out.

Holding about 70% of the local press and Sky News TV, Rupert Murdoch has that kind of power in Australia. He knows it and – like his father – plays it out rather callously and uncompromisingly.

Like father like son, Rupert Murdoch remains instrumental when it comes to I put him there, and I’ll put him out. This includes Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian. Gladys not only oversaw the vaccination of ineligible elite boys a few weeks ago, she also oversaw front line workers like unvaccinated and not mask-wearing airport bus drivers transferring airline staff – the source of our newest and fast spreading Covid-19 outbreak.

What followed was to be expected. The unvaccinated bus driver was infected by the Covid-19 virus from airline crew and transported it into Sydney. Millions of Sydneysiders are now into their third week of lockdown with another three to come – for now. Only a short time before this new outbreak started, Scott Morrison persistently repeated NSW’s Gold Standard in the fight against Covid-19 with Gladys as the country’s Liberal pin-up girl in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, this evaporated into thin air.

Meanwhile Australia’s conservative press, including Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, blamed the victim – the bus driver, as usual, the weakest link in the chain. This is a highly efficient propaganda/PR strategy. It eliminates the real culprits – Gladys Berejiklian and her health minister, Brad Hazzard.

Both had failed to legislate the vaccination status for workers in the quarantine system and safeguard that regulations in regard to regular testing requirements are being followed – protocols that in the public’s mind had long been believed to be established. Hazzard remains a loyal party soldier who has featured in various roles with not much of any real expertise other than defending neoliberal ideology.

When the secret vaccination of the elite boys was uncovered by the non-Murdoch press (of course), Berejiklian and Hazzard very quickly forced their department of health (Health NSW) to claim “it was a mistake”. The PR idea was to push the debacle to someone else, in this case Health NSW. Most importantly, blaming others gets you out of the firing line. It also ensures that your face is not associated with the vaccination of 163 elite boys not yet eligible for vaccination while frontline bus drivers in the quarantine system remain unprotected.

A few days later, when questioned by a journalist about the issue, Hazzard delivered a near perfect PR-show. He claimed on TV that the journalist who had asked the question about the vaccinated elite boys “is abusing front line workers”. Rather skillfully, he deflected from the fact that he – Mr Hazzard – was, as health minister, ultimately responsible for the entire affair. Propaganda was achieved as soon as the discussion was shifted away from his ministerial responsibilities.

Party apparatchik Hazzard also told the journalist to move on. There is a reason why politicians feature in multiple portfolios without any visible expertise. Their real capability is politics, ideology and propaganda. If you are good in this, you are made for the job.

Of course, the 163 Pfizer – not AstraZeneca – vaccination of elite boys happened by mistake. The elite boarding school might have approached Health NSW by mistake. By mistake the health department said “yes”. By mistake the parents of all 163 boys were informed about the vaccination. By mistake, they all gave their consent to the school.

By mistake, the school checked the incoming consent forms and made sure all are there. By mistake, a date for the vaccination was set, buses were organized and the boys were driven to the vaccination hub. And my mistake, they all returned to their school. Surprisingly though, whenever such mistakes happen under the Liberal Party, they tend to favor the elites – not the average Australian.

Australia’s very conservative Liberal Party supports the elite and fails the rest. For the rest, the Athenian philosopher Thucydides (400BC) is thoroughly applied. Thucydides said, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

This article was published on 22 July 2021 on Counterpunch.

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