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20 December 2007

Lessons from anti-moth spray campaign


In an article in the NZ Herald (17 December) science communication lecturer Marie McEntee draws some major PR lessons from the campaigns to eradicate outbreaks of white-spotted tussock moth from East Auckland in 1996-97 and painted apple month (PAM) from West Auckland and Hamilton from 2002-2004.

The two campaigns are discussed in a recently-released Ombudsmen's Office report which primarily focuses on the more recent PAM campaign.

Both campaigns involved frequent aerial spraying of large numbers of people with what is generally agreed to be a safe biological pesticide, BTK, mixed in a secret brew of other chemicals designed to preserve the live organic product, keep it in suspension and to ensure it spreads evenly and sticks to foliage. These other chemicals are relatively benign and apart from mild eye irritation most people are unaffected by exposure to them.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for a small proportion of the population. They endure significant allergic reactions, as they do when they are exposed to the same chemicals which are often present in common household products like cleansers.

Biosecurity campaigns that involve the use of aerial sprays over urban areas to eradicate pest invaders present governments with enormous challenges. How those in charge work with affected communities is crucial to their success and acceptance, McEntee says.

Government authorities must be responsive to the communities in which they work. She says concerns expressed by the West Auckland community and its elected local government were frequently overlooked by MAF Biosecurity which co-ordinated the 2002-04 campaign.

"It ... sidelined calls by experts who had been involved with the earlier East Auckland spraying of the tussock moth. The positive and negative experiences gained from that campaign should have helped to shape the West Auckland programme.

"If government institutions are to learn anything from their experience in these campaigns, they must examine [how] their management, and the way they deliberate on issues, can affect both public and media acceptance of their work."

Her analysis of media coverage of the two campaigns shows that coverage of the more recent PAM campaign was significantly more negative than the earlier tussock moth campaign. She attributes this to the way each campaign was managed, and how well the ministries responsible engaged, listened to and involved their communities. 

She believes a major flaw in the PAM campaign was that it favoured public education over engagement with the public. This marginalised those who openly opposed the campaign and created a stronger and louder opposition.

"In future campaigns [MAF Biosecurity] must step beyond the narrow operational focus of its statutory obligations and engage meaningfully with communities affected by its actions. This calls for all sides to work together and learn from experience. During conflict, it is time to engage, not withdraw."

McEntee is bang on the button. The Ministry of Forestry's communications strategy for the 1996 tussock moth outbreak involved consultation with affected residents down to the street and neighbourhood level, whereas MAF's strategy for the 2002 PAM outbreak was to use very small focus groups totalling 20 people selected to be sounding boards for 193,000 residents. The ministry also consulted regularly with key influentials throughout the campaign.

This was quite deliberate, because of problems with activists travelling from one consultation meeting to another, taking over and preventing a genuine dialogue with local residents. To avoid this, public communications tended to be one-way; through the media by way of large advertisements.

Unfortunately, top-down communications, when added to the preference among bureaucrats for top-down decision-making, appears to have resulted in campaign organisers becoming increasingly alienated from residents and their local body representatives.

Ombudsman Mel Smith in his report reached similar conclusions.

"There needs to be a clear official acceptance that although the numbers of people may not be great as a proportion of the community in the spray zone, there will, in raw numbers, be a significant number who the evidence indicates will require medical attention, and in some cases removal from the area to be sprayed," he says.

"It is no light thing to be sprayed, perhaps repeatedly, with some substance the ingredients of which are to some extent confidential, and to have one's life substantially disrupted for what may be a quite lengthy period of time.

"I have reached the conclusion that insufficient attention was paid to the impact of these operations, and that since there is the likelihood that the need to carry out similar operations may well arise in the future, it is important that a structure be established that will enable the worst features of these earlier operations to be avoided."

The Ombudsman makes it clear that MAF aggravated its PR position by delaying the decision to attack PAM for more than a year, by which time it had spread over a large populated area.

"MAF also made a big error early on in the [West Auckland PAM] spray programme by giving the impression that the spray had no health effects. This resulted in a big credibility gap with the public and stakeholders who saw or heard that the spray was indeed causing health problems in the community.

"Seeing these reactions and hearing MAF's denials about it made the public think MAF was not disclosing harmful elements of the spray. While some of these matters were corrected at later stages and well after the public had experienced allergic reactions, many people had become unnecessarily suspicious about the health risks posed by the spray ..." he says.

"I am of the view that if a New Zealand Government is going to authorise a major spray programme such as those in issue here it is essential that it has, and retains, public support.

"That point was emphasised in one of the last of the reports available to me in relation to [the earlier tussock moth campaign]. However, in respect of both the West Auckland and Hamilton sprays it was apparent that while the majority put up with the discomfort and inconvenience, there was a significant lack of public support, and mistrust of the Government agencies involved."

Not surprisingly the Ombudsman's first recommendations focus on public relations.

  • My recommendation is that the spraying agency must provide full and accurate information in relation to the need for the spray programme and about the contents of the spray. It should also unequivocally acknowledge that there may be harm caused to some people residing or present within the spray zone.

  • That publication should be made as early as possible to enable those who may wish to do so, to seek medical advice and to take steps to limit, or avoid, exposure to the spray.

  • There would need to be a well planned communications strategy which should encompass details on demographic groups, food allergies, respiratory problems, family disruptions, and the opportunities for access to medical general practitioners and specialists. Basically, there should be a health service that is sensitive to the community it serves, and is proactive.

  • Part of that strategy could involve the establishment of a community liaison group with a wide range of relevant experience and interests.

From a professional PR point of view, these recommendations seem self-evident. Since MAF has not responded publicly to the Ombudsman's report we can only surmise as to why this simple recipe wasn't applied at the time. Possibly - as so often happens - strategic PR advice was swamped by the command and control instincts of senior management.

Biosecurity minister Jim Anderton did respond to the report. But not to the Ombudsman's main concerns - the failure of MAF Biosecurity to have effective two-way communications with the community, or to act on the lessons of the previous PAM campaign - other than to say ‘did' to the Ombudsman's ‘didn't'.

In a lengthy media release, Anderton alleged that the Ombudsman had ignored the huge economic and environmental benefits of the campaign. This of course was not the Ombudsman's role.

In making such a defensive response, Anderton seemed to miss the fact that the Ombudsman was on his team. As the Ombudsman pointed out, if a future campaign is needed, it is "essential that it has, and retains, public support". Indeed, without such support, the political heat surrounding a future campaign might result in its abandonment regardless of its economic and environmental importance.

The Ombudsman even had difficulty convincing the Ministry of Health that its population-based risk management philosophy was relevant to an issue involving public confidence rather than the spread of a disease.

"If public confidence is to be restored in operations of this nature, the Ministry of Health should be charged (and be seen to be charged) with the responsibility of ensuring that the health concerns of the population liable to be sprayed receive at least equal consideration with ecological or biosecurity issues. I am not convinced that was so in the West Auckland and Hamilton operations."

The minister and the good doctors at the Ministry of Health need to understand that the spores of public doubt and distrust can spread far quicker than any disease. Having tried to discredit the Ombudsman's Report, we hope they have quietly taken its many sound recommendations on board.





- Trevor Walton

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