16 Apr 2023

A rainy day for the mayor's media freeze out

From Mediawatch, 9:13 am on 16 April 2023

The New Zealand Herald's blunt front page take on the review of the Auckland flood response.

The New Zealand Herald's blunt front page take on the review of the Auckland flood response. Photo: RNZ Mediawatch

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown has maintained a relationship with the media that's been - at best - frosty.

A new report into Auckland Council's flood response shows the limits of that approach - and it said “there was little utilisation of mainstream media to amplify critical safety messages". The mayor's promised changes. What would help media do their job in an emergency? 

Media attending a press conference on the review of Auckland Council's response to the Auckland Anniversary Weekend floods spent 30 minutes hearing from its author, former police commissioner Mike Bush.

But one important figure was notably absent from the stage; the one who ordered the review in the first place.

"Where is the mayor?" asked The New Zealand Herald columnist Simon Wilson. 

As it turns out, Wayne Brown wasn't engaging with the media that day, and wouldn't for some time.

His silence was hardly out of the ordinary.

Brown has had what could euphemistically be described as a rocky relationship with the media, dating back to his campaign for the Auckland mayoralty.

Just before the election, Newshub caught him on camera expressing his displeasure about the coverage of the aforementioned Wilson with a toilet-themed threat.

"The first thing I'll do when I get to be the mayor - they'll be gluing little pictures of him on all the urinals so they can pee on him," he said.

That antipathy has continued following Brown's election to office.

Our biggest new organisation, Stuff, only just got its first sit-down interview with him this week, six months after his election. It came with conditions: Brown got to choose the journalist asking the questions.

When the mayor has fronted up, the exchanges have often been prickly or outright combative. On the night of the floods, he admonished reporters asking whether he had acted quickly and decisively enough, saying "my role isn't to rush out with buckets".

On RNZ the morning after, he deflected presenter Kim Hill's questions about the council's response.

"This is an unprecedented event. It'll be interesting to see how Wellington is when the earthquake strikes."

Since the report’s release, Brown appears to have gone back to ground.

On RNZ’s Midday Report the day after its release, deputy mayor Desley Simpson was asked about the lack of communication from council leadership, while communicating for the council in his stead.

It later emerged that Brown or his staff hadn’t responded to RNZ’s request for an interview.

The lack of communication is particularly eyebrow-raising in light of the report into the flood response finding that mainstream media hadn't been properly utilised to get the council's messages out to the public. 

It suggests that the report’s recommendation to improve communication with the media and public hasn’t been fully implemented by the mayor’s office just yet.

“A lot of media are so abrasive and corrosive that frankly I don’t want to talk to them,” Brown told TVNZ’s Q+A show this weekend.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown apologises for flood response.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown apologises for flood response. Photo: Supplied/ Auckland Council / YouTube

But Brown's not the only one being criticised over the council's ineffective response.

The report also calls out a sclerotic, poorly organised council bureaucracy and councillors who have failed to fix known problems with their emergency management systems for years. 

On The AM Show, one of those councillors - Civil Defence and emergency management committee chairperson Sharon Stewart - seemed more interested in finding someone else to blame than talking about what she could do differently

"I think the responsibility really has to go back to the CEO. He's responsible for all the expectations of the event," she said. 

"Elected members are not operational so we were really needing to hear from them."

In fact, the report mentions potential failings by Stewart's committee, pointing out that it didn't progress a response plan for a large-scale emergency in the last term of council, even though concerns had been raised about its lack of preparedness for that scale of an event. 

Her paper-shuffling interview performance earned her a rebuke from presenter Amanda Gillies

"After that interview I do not have my faith restored in the system," she said.

"Trying to pass the buck - that's the problem. You are the chair. You are in charge. Sorry."

The Bush-led independent review report said “there was little utilisation of mainstream media, as lifeline utilities, to amplify critical safety messages” and “perhaps a lack of clarity between managing media and engaging with media agencies as lifeline utilities and channels of critical public information”.   

Todd Niall is a veteran local government reporter for Stuff who’s had something of a bumpy ride with the new council, and particularly the mayor.

He told Mediawatch that a pattern of media silence can see politicians – and councils – come unstuck in a crisis.

Under previous administrations, he had good relationships with communications staff who could quickly confirm the mayor's schedule.

Those relationships aren't present in the current administration, and that made it difficult to get out the messages and reassurances Aucklanders needed to hear during and after the floods, he said.

"It's alright for the mayor in one interview saying 'I'm not here for the media, I'm here for Aucklanders'. But it doesn't recognise the media isn't the end, it's the means of communicating with Aucklanders."

Niall said it wasn't encouraging to see the mayor absent from the press conference on a report which criticised him for failing to communicate.

"It's all very well to say 'look I got it wrong, I should've been out there more', but then to do the same thing again, you wonder what's going on."

The media also received some criticism on the night of the floods for being a slower source of new information than social media sites like TikTok or Twitter.

Niall said the immediacy of information sharing on social media is impossible for reporters to keep up with, especially with newsrooms understaffed and under-resourced. 

"I don't think you would ever have a situation where there were enough media resources to cover the breadth of what was going on independently," he said. 

"Just the ability to get around, to drive to places on the night was pretty difficult. The media probably did a pretty good job given the circumstances it was working in."

The Bush review points out that many Auckland civil defence staff have day jobs in other roles, and dedicated emergency management professionals in the field are mainly based in Wellington. 

The report also noted most staff with 'Public Information Management' roles “were forced to juggle between dealing with media enquiries and the provision of public information”. 

In that sense, Auckland Council has something in common with news organisations, which don't generally have dedicated reporters assigned to covering emergencies or civil defence matters.

Niall said those sorts of positions aren't really necessary, as reporters covering a natural disaster need to use the same tools and methods as they do on any other story.

"Dealing with the flood is what the media does every day. Dealing with the flood for Auckland Council and Auckland Emergency Management as an organisation is far more complex, and according to the report they clearly didn't manage to lock into the new structure and get moving as quickly as they should've."