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Tom Burton: Why Dr Karl did Treasury a big favour

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Dr Karl went rogue this week, upsetting Treasury’s first big foray into digital engagement, but injecting some much needed real opinion into the Challenge of Change campaign. Is this an engagement lesson that departments can learn from?

Joe Hockey’s conversation about our economic future went off script this week, when Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, the ABC science boffin fronting the Challenge of Change campaign, decided it did not talk enough about climate change.

The ever colourful Dr Karl had been hired to help get the public engaged in Federal Treasury’s latest Inter Generational Report — the 40 year outlook document that seeks to make sense of the larger demographic and economic trends shaping the nation.

But by weeks end Dr Karl had donated his earnings from the engagement to a school, declaring it had all got too nasty in the social media chat rooms.

This in turn prompted another round of left/right, green/brown, ABC/News Corp missives about the rights/wrongs of Dr Karl’s public utterances and the ubiquitous Challenge of Change bus posters, TV ads, and You Tube videos and associated website and social media sites.

It was a searing experience for Treasury and its first real foray into the modern world of social engagement, with everyone involved ducking for cover, hoping the Dr Karl Exocet , might just fly off to another place.

Till very recently Treasury was about as old school as it gets when it comes to communications and engagement, preferring to quietly publish their works on the inner indexes of their distinctly web 1.0 site. Treasury had been involved in big public campaigns before — the mining tax for example — but till now had eschewed the full court press of digital engagement.

2014 was of course annus horribilis for Treasury and its political masters, their Federal Budget shredded in the court of public opinion — and the much-needed task of economic reform set back by at least one electoral cycle.

The G20 program began to take Treasury into a newer world and the work to better understand what was driving this public opinion began last year ahead of the appointment of new Secretary, John Fraser — fresh from the shiny world of global investment banking. Over the summer a gaggle of brand, pr, marketing, research and digital smarties were hired in, to give Treasury the sizzle an ANU economics degree does not train you for.

None of this came cheap. A local Canberra outfit Zoo got $102K for their “re:think” brand and web site work for the tax reform paper, Sydney PR and lobby outfit chaired by former Comms Minister Helen Coonan, GRACosway scored $297K and another $70 K, to drive the comms around tax whitepaper, and Melbourne communications research firm HP Open Mind Research pocketed $193K and a further $68 k to understand what the punters want (“lower simpler fairer” taxes) and another research group Taylor Nelson Sofres won a $79 k contract. A company called RXP also picked up $112 k to build an online submission system. (Google forms is free) . But it was the boutique creative and media agency 303Lowe who got the big bucks, $1,746,612 (to be precise) for putting the Challenge of Change campaign together. (Thank you Austender).

$2.7 million all up. That would have repaired a lot of school playgrounds.

What the actual cost of the media buy for the Challenge of Change campaign no one (amazingly) actually wants to say yet, but given the proliferation of the media channels – including prime time – we are talking multi millions.

What to say?

First, this was an expensive first jump into the deep end of the engagement pond. If the golden principle of the digital world is to build it small, test and then scale, this mega media engagement play certainly broke that principle.

Second, it is by any professional account a very slick campaign.

Experience tells us digital engagement works well when there is a clear personal self-interest to be debated. E.g. to put in a pedestrian crossing, to build a bus stop. But both here and overseas no one has really cracked how to do digital engagement around big policy issues. Let alone one as vast as the 40-year future of our country.

Leaving aside Dr Karl’s purchaser’s remorse, the Challenge of Change campaign is as good a policy based engagement as I have seen in the Australian context.

The challegeofchange.gov.au website is a neat mini site, responsive on mobiles and easy to navigate. The breaking of the 145-page report report into simple digestible factoids and video grabs might offend the Canberra policy wonks, but for everyday punters it at least gave them some thing to consider.

The Dr Karl faux seminar is TED talk style smooth, and for the main works. Most of the 94,000 who have looked at the video to date (up from 72,000 two days ago before Dr Karl spat his dummy) only got six and half minutes into the 16-minute You Tube video — but that is three times the average for YouTube.

The web testimonials by well-known Aussies are cheesy comms 101, but works — and I have seen far worse commercial versions.

The outdoor creative is far too subtle and dense for fast moving traffic, but suitable for bored pedestrians waiting for their bus to arrive.

The TVC’s won’t win any awards, but if an aim of the campaign is to win the engagement of influencers, then 303Lowe’s talent recommendation of Dr Karl was not a dumb call – other than for those who equate the ABC with secular communism. Authoritative, evidence driven and opinionated Dr Karl appeals to a broad age and gender spectrum and is nerdy enough to not offend. A contract to lock the talent into the party line would have been wise.

The Twitter site is classic PR agency with as much engagement as my great aunt’s bush grave.

But these are small fry complaints for what all things being fair, is an honorable and well-constructed first attempt at playing in the modern media playground.

Three, probably the biggest failing was no real call to action. Simple engagement — watch the video — is fine, but what is the whole point, or conversion goal of the campaign? If downloading the report is the final game then stapling five dollar bills to the cover and heading out to Federation Square would have been a more cost effective strategy.

Which leads to the final observation. Dr Karl’s climate change confession might have taken the debate away from where the highly paid spin maisters wanted, but it is in fact exactly what real digital engagement is about.

The key to understanding modern engagement is that you can’t control it — some thing the electronic graffiti PM and many of his team have yet to tweak to. As uncomfortable as it has been, Dr Karl has done what the multi-million dollar campaign had failed to do — inject some real and passionate debate into our future policy settings.

If there is a second golden rule in digital engagement it is you have to listen. Conversations are two-way.

If there was a misstep in the campaign it was to set the document up as a bible like tablets, set in stone. Rather if the document had been written and presented in a very open and wiki like manner — then the community could have become active participants in developing this alpha version into some thing everyone could contribute to.

We are still trying to work out how wise the crowds exactly are, but if there is one thing we know about modern engagement, it is that it must be authentic and truly open. That is a practice departments like Treasury — with its strong culture as the bastion of economic wisdom — will need to embrace if they want to be genuine participants in these conversations.

And a post script: in the land of the free, the Obama administration has just opened up the traffic analytics for the 300 major US government websites so everyone can see what and how citizens are actually engaging with their tax payer funded web installations. All part of the open government, digital transformation movement, Hockey’s fellow Liberal wet, Malcolm Turnbull, is evangelising.

It is probably a while before all Australia agencies even get themselves onto the Google Analytics platform, but in the meantime wouldn’t it be a sign that big government is finally getting it, if we were maturely told — without a senate estimates show trial — what the cost of this exercise was.

I for one, would probably agree it is a costly, but worthwhile down payment, if we can get a sensible consensus about ensuring our next generation is better off than we.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.