In 1998, PR flak Ken Hooper helped shopping centre giant Westfield prevent a rival development by setting up an “astro-turf” front group, North Strathfield Resident Action Group, or NSRAG. The Daily Telegraph aired the scandal in 2000, when Hooper said he “ensured Westfield it could rely on Mr [Adam] Pooley to keep Westfield's name out of ‘these dealings’”.
Pooley was used to run the Sydney Independent Retailers Group, which provided condemnation of further large development in Sydney which would disrupt “the existing retail hierarchy”, according to a statement quoted in the press in August 1998.
A transcript of the Nine Network’s Sunday program’s coverage of the debacle is available online.
In July 2004, Westfield paid the frustrated developer, Kirela, $3.5 million to settle out of court, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. Online database Factiva contains only two pieces on the events of 1998.
The Orange Grove scandal brings up over 1600 articles in Factiva.
But another article links Hooper Communications and Westfield. It reveals that an employee of the PR company, James Photios, infiltrated an action group opposed to Westfield’s Bondi Junction redevelopment, Battlers for Bondi.
These and other (many, many other) stories in Bob Burton’s enthralling Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry (2007) chronicle deals, crimes and misdemeanours perpetrated by an unregulated Australian PR industry.
By the end, Burton is calling for closer regulation. Currently, the peak body, the Public Relations Institute of Australia, he says, has a code of ethics but it only “obliquely hints at the benefits of transparency”.
Further, it “certainly doesn’t require companies to reveal their client list. In the absence of this information, it is rare that a member of the public will ever know who was behind what campaign.”
Partly, he blames journalists who, he says, have less time for investigative reporting and, as a result, rely on feeds (sometimes literally) from PR firms employed by wealthy companies and other organisations. Electronic ‘stories’ are frequently aired with a cursory ‘head shot’ of a reporter in the field. The bulk of the story, he shows, is provided as a video news release (VNR).
Burton also takes aim at corporate-sponsored prizes for journalists who, he says, “having volunteered to participate in them … are unlikely to write critically about them (the companies, who include drug manufacturers, among others).”
The book should be read by every media student. It contains a litany of unethical actions that, cumulatively, show an industry policing itself (badly) and afraid of litigation. The money is copious.