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Dr Strange-love; A Modern Media Morality Tale

By Janet Wilson January 27th, 2010

There comes a time when virtually everyone in business and public life finds themselves in (to use a highly technical term) “deep doggy doo-doos”. This is a moment when the public and the media have, for whatever reason, rounded upon them with a vengeance.

Whether an act of omission or commission the newsmakers generally find themselves embroiled in a crisis, seemingly without warning.

If they are honest with themselves they will probably admit they should have seen the consequences of their action (or inaction) coming and they could have evolved a response plan, put it on the shelf, crossed their fingers they would never need it, and moved on with their activities knowing that, if worst came to worst, they could cope with the crisis.

Every good business has a business continuity plan, what to do if it has an IT failure, a power loss or natural disaster strikes.

Good businesses should also worry about and plan for what happens if the unnatural disaster of a media furore erupts around them.

Which is why I have to ask: What was Dr Patrick Strange and Transpower thinking? Transpower has had more power cuts in this city than Aucklanders have had cold dinners.

Did anyone think: What do we do and say the next time we leave the country’s biggest city and the engine room of the economy in the dark?

Transpower has had a battle over many years with the highly excitable Matangi farmer Steve Meier, it knew his trees could cause a fire and damage the lines.

Pylons like these have farmers fuming

Pylons like these have farmers fuming

Why, when the inevitable occurred, did Transpower have as its only response a “Neighbours From Hell” type public slagging match with the farmer?

Why, when the fire and the cuts first occurred, did spokesman Dr Patrick Strange have as his only messages that Transpower was doing all it could, it was spending big bucks on upgrading the lines through to Auckland which is why it’s pushing more lines through the Waikato against the opposition of many other farmers there and, besides, it was all Mr Meier’s fault?

In the media that I heard, saw and read, Dr Strange (and Transpower) came across as haughty, arrogant, abrasive, hostile and a typically uncaring big bureaucratic corporation.

Can I suggest the first thing Dr Strange should have done is give a fulsome apology to Auckland and the businesses that lost considerable money due to his failure to supply them with power?

Patrick Strange, Transpower's CEO

Patrick Strange, Transpower's CEO

When questioned as to “How could this occur, again?” he needed to make a partial concession – that Transpower was trying but obviously not well enough and he’d do everything he could to make sure any failures on his company’s part would be remedied.

When in confrontation with farmer Meier he needed to be conciliatory, not angry and certainly not blame Meier for the fire and the power cut. Again, Strange needed a partial concession that Transpower could have handled their relationship with Meier better than it has and offer to personally remedy the situation, and then he could have returned to his key messages.

When in confrontation with a furious Mayor John Banks he again needed a more conciliatory approach, not abuse Banks for supposedly not returning phone calls.

If you strike back at your critics you look aggressive and unrepentant.

The public are quite forgiving critters, if they had got an admission of fault, failure or flaws followed by genuine repentance, sympathy would have swung Transpower’s way.

The message that it is “spending billions to fix the high risk of power cuts and the infrastructure work takes time” is not a bad one but this plea in mitigation needed to be preceded by first adopting the far more reasonable approach outlined above.

What I find inconceivable is Dr Strange and Transpower failed to recognise the second stage of the story, that anyone else with a grudge against Transpower would come forward and label it ruthless, incompetent, high handed and uncaring.

By first saying that the power cut proved the need for the billion dollar new lines through the Waikato he immediately incited those vociferous opponents to come out and take up cudgels on the question.

He also gave South Island farmers a platform for their gripes and calls for better access protocols and rental compensation for pylon sites. In a National Radio interview the next day he disparaged the South Island farmers, seemed aloof to their worries, and as a result the farmer’s spokesman unleashed a frenzy of vitriol against Transpower.

Dr Patrick Strange is obviously a very intelligent man but he has been poorly served in this debacle.

He needs to soften his hard (almost ruthless and intransigent) image and appear to be listening to his critics.

If he doesn’t he will to continue to project Transpower’s image as an uncaring, bureaucratic monster that embodies the worst faults of a giant government-owned corporation.

Dr Strange may think he can ignore public opinion because he has the power of the state behind Transpower in what it does.

His main stakeholder might not agree. Minister Gerry Brownlee, himself a past critic of Transpower when in Opposition, will not be pleased.

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