Of all the people to spare a thought for this lockdown, I bet no one has suggested Don Braid. The outspoken chief executive of Mainfreight had the PR equivalent of a meltdown earlier this week in response to news that truckies need to be tested at the Auckland border. The proposition was, in his much reported opinion, ludicrous, ill-considered, hasty and a complete surprise.
The following day he apologised on RNZ, admitting he’d got a bit emotional – but he conceded nothing. The imposition of testing was impractical and typical of an out-of-touch government (those are my words but you get the idea).
Don Braid is a journalist’s delight and a PR’s nightmare. Outspoken and emboldened by decades of entrepreneurial chutzpah, Don will never leave you guessing what he thinks.
Industry spokespeople don’t have that luxury. Actually, as a quasi-industry spokesman, he doesn’t either.
The path that industry spokespeople walk is delicate. On the one hand, they must be seen to be constructive, positive and contributing to the Covid effort. With the government still tracking above 80% support for its Covid management, no industry wants to be offside with the PM and her officials – or the Team of Five Million.
On the other hand, members are hurting. In Auckland, 30 hospitality business owners, assembled to complain about the shift to Level 2 because businesses didn’t get support from the Government or relief from banks or landlords, and it was a difficult environment to trade in. Some threatened to not pay GST in protest. One owner, Luke Dallow said hospitality industry associations were not lobbying the Government enough on behalf of the industry and did not fully grasp the challenges hospitality businesses were facing.
The pain is being felt nationwide. This week, insolvency companies reported getting a lot of inquiries from businesses considering liquidation. Last year there was little of that happening.
So what to do if you’re an industry leader – comply or complain?
Until this week it was the former. But the gloves are slipping off. Hospitality Association’s Julie White didn’t mince her words: “the new Level 2 is another ‘kick in the guts’ for an industry that’s already down. Operators are in a horrific state financially, and this could be the final straw for many.”
She went on.
“Hospitality venues went along with the idea of mandatory record-keeping and masks because it was an extra layer of protection and we figured it was something we could live with because at least we would be open – even though it’s not ideal, venues will have to police it. But this is a huge step backwards. It’s particularly disappointing for the South Island where there is no sign of Covid.”
Restaurant Association’s Marisa Bidois also came out swinging. The association had been advocating for more targeted support for affected businesses since the start of the pandemic. “We have been doing a huge amount of lobbying but frustratingly, much of it is falling on deaf ears,” she said.
Public criticism of the government has until now been the reserve of loudmouths and cranks. But the balance shifted this week. The alliance between industry and government has proven remarkably strong but the missteps by the government are testing that resolve. Bidois and White are right to criticise – they must defend their members from poor policy.
At the same time, industry leaders cannot afford to fall into the oppositional trap. It helps no one to be seen as a moaner, or worse, the National Party.
So kudos then to Horticulture NZ. As with hospo owners, horticulture businesses are carrying the costs of disruption, with staff shortages, delivery constraints, social distancing rules and unpredictable spikes in demand. Who knew demand for broccoli would be so hot?
Hort’s approach has been to enforce internal discipline. In a memo to members chief executive Nadine Tunley sets out the industry line: “What I am about to say next is probably not something any of you really want to hear at the moment, which I understand. But I want to touch on the point that as hard as it is for everyone at the moment, we are still in the “essential business” category unlike hospitality and many other businesses. So it is considered a privilege for horticulture to operate, not a right, particularly under Alert Level 4, which Auckland is still in.”
It’s a privilege to operate. Quite the opposite tone to Don Braid’s entitled rage.
Turney reminds members that Delta is highly infectious and as a sector they need to do their part.
“This is about maintaining our social license to operate, be that domestically or internationally. Any outbreaks of Covid in or caused by our sector would be extremely damaging, given we are at the forefront of food production. Consumers need to have the confidence – and evidence – that our sector functions at the highest standards in these uncertain times.”
The line between complaining and compliance is nuanced but the higher purpose is clear: we have committed to beat this damn virus. Finding better ways to do that is good. Tantrums won’t help.
Vincent Heeringa is a PR advisor and partner in The Feed