I was asked a question about Matthew Hooton on Twitter recently, and it got me thinking:
Who funds Matthew Hooton? Gee, that’s a good question.
Hooton used to run a corporate lobbying/PR firm in Auckland. That’s the basis of the frankly risible NZ Herald disclosure statements on his ‘opinion’ columns (hit jobs, really) which variously describe him as ‘an Auckland-based PR consultant’.
As a quick aside, it’s been amusing watching the NZ Herald progressively whitewashing Hooton’s role as a political agent/operative for the NZ National Party. These three examples of the ‘disclosure’ published by NZME at the bottom of his hit pieces in the Herald are all from this month. The Herald must think we readers (I’m a subscriber) are idiots.
Anyway, sometime in the last year or so Hooton’s business website exceltium.com went offline.
Hooton also shut down his Twitter account, shortly after his campaign to undermine (some would say ‘politically assassinate’) National Party leader Simon Bridges on behalf of Todd Muller was exposed; and just before he went to work for Muller in the Leader of the Opposition’s office.
Hooton had used that Twitter account — and every media platform granted to him (Radio NZ, NZ Herald, Newshub, NewstalkZB, to name just a few) to repeatedly wax lyrical about how Simon Bridges was dragging the National Party down, to undermine him, and tell his readers how Bridges just had to go, for the good of the Party. viz...
Exceltium – Hooton’s dirty PR
But back to Exceltium. They say nothing is ever really deleted from the internet, so remnants of the Exceltium website and its self-promotion remain.
Below is a skite sheet (‘Case Studies’ from the page above) naming 13 Exceltium past (and present? Dunno. We could ask them, I guess) clients. It crows in glowing terms (fair enough, it’s promotion, right?) about the “pressure campaigns” this particular dirty PR/lobbying firm, and probably others, undertakes in the interests of their clients. Here’s the complete list as it was published. I’ll highlight some features following the list.
Exceltium has provided strategic and communications advice to Meredith Connell and the Crown Solicitor Network around New Zealand. Exceltium project-managed Meredith Connell’s comprehensive re-brand to re-position it as a national, full-service law firm, and also produced collateral material to support the firm’s successful bid in a competitive tender for the new Auckland Crown warrant in 2015.
Exceltium undertook an external stakeholders perceptions audit for Auckland Transport researching attitudes amongst the Auckland business community towards the organisation’s 30-year transport plan and assisting the Council-Controlled Organisation (CCO) in establishing relationships with local business leaders. Following the audit, Exceltium worked with Auckland Transport to engage with business and opinion leaders on their views on the plan and how the organisation’s offering could be improved.
FBT Action Group
In early 2013, Exceltium led a high-profile public campaign against government plans to extend the Fringe Benefit Tax to all company carparks in Auckland and Wellington. Conducted on behalf of the FBT Action Group, the campaign involved bringing parties as diverse as the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) and Council of Trade Unions into a coalition of support, and pressuring government through direct lobbying, distribution of bumper stickers, a ‘No Carpark Tax’ Facebook page, and sustained print, radio and television media activity. The proposed tax was abandoned within a week of the campaign going public.
Maori Economic Development Panel
Exceltium was commissioned in mid 2012 by the Maori Economic Development Panel, Te Puni Kokiri and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to help refine, launch and implement He Kai Kei Aku Ringa, the Panel’s Strategy to 2040. Exceltium established a coalition of more than a dozen of New Zealand’s most important private sector entities – including Fonterra, Zespri and Westpac – to publicly endorse the Strategy and provide active support for its implementation.
Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority
During the second half of 2012, Exceltium assisted the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority with the development of a strategy to attract local, national and international investment to the city, following the launch of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan. Exceltium engaged with the international investment community to gauge perceptions of opportunities in Christchurch, established the Invest Christchurch investment facilitation service, and designed and implemented communications initiatives to support the strategy, including the Invest Christchurch newsletter.
Fonterra Shareholders’ Council
Drawing on the extensive dairy industry experience of its own senior team, Exceltium has worked closely with the Fonterra Shareholders’ Council to help it to achieve its policy objectives. In particular, these relate to possible changes to the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act, milk prices, Fonterra’s Trading Among Farmers scheme, and local body representation.
Sir Michael Fay
Exceltium’s work with Sir Michael Fay and his $170 million attempt to purchase the Crafar farms ahead of a rival Chinese consortium began in 2011. Having developed a media strategy, Alan McDonald acted as the Fay bid’s media spokesman, while Matthew Hooton managed government and opposition relations. The Fay bid went all the way through judicial review and the high court, harnessing public sentiment and placing extreme pressure on government policy.
Medical Technology Association of New Zealand (MTANZ)
From 2010–2012, Exceltium provided government relations and communications advice to MTANZ to help address regulatory risks facing the medical devices industry. In particular, Exceltium helped to build a constituency of support among government and health sector stakeholders for the industry, and for the important contribution it makes to healthcare outcomes and economic growth in New Zealand.
In 2010, Exceltium worked with Sealord, New Zealand’s largest seafood company, to develop and implement an internal communications strategy to guide the roll-out of Sealord’s ‘Our Story’ identity project. Since then, Exceltium has provided ongoing government and media relations advice to help Sealord manage high-profile issues that shape the policy framework for the seafood industry.
Exceltium was closely involved in the entry of 2Degrees into the New Zealand mobile telecommunications market in 2009, and led the successful grassroots campaign to bring down mobile termination rates. Drop the Rate, Mate! brought together a broad coalition of support parties – including the New Zealand Union of Students Association, Federated Farmers, Unite Union and Consumer NZ – and enlisted thousands of supporters online to bring pressure to bear on policy-makers.
Exceltium has a long-standing relationship with Zespri, the world’s largest kiwifruit marketer, and has provided assistance on a number of fronts to secure Zespri’s interests in relation to the regulatory framework for the kiwifruit industry. This includes government relations, issues management and internal and external communications.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore
Exceltium provides Rio Tinto Iron Ore with strategic advice on engaging with the political and economic environment in New Zealand. In particular, Exceltium manages Rio Tinto’s relations with iwi groups and the wider community on the West Coast of the North Island of New Zealand, co-ordinates the company’s government relations initiatives, and provides ongoing political and economic intelligence.
Kyoto Forestry Association
Exceltium ran an extensive campaign on behalf of the Kyoto Forestry Association from 2005–2007, following the then-government’s decision to nationalise carbon credits. The campaign used high-profile public demonstration, billboards and sustained media activity to exert pressure on government, and ultimately resulted in $1.6 billion of carbon credits being returned to forestry owners.
So, what does this self-selected list tell us about lobbying/dirty PR in Aotearoa New Zealand? I’ll share a couple of things that stand out to me; feel free to let me have your thoughts in ‘Comments’ below.
Well, in Sir Michael Fay’s case it was all about “harnessing public sentiment and placing extreme pressure on government policy” in an effort to overturn a decision about the sale of the Crafar farms. Look at the tactics and ask yourself: Is this a public good?
Even more explicit, Matthew Hooton (presumably) spills some other techniques dirty PR/lobbying uses, including “sustained print, radio and television media activity” as well as Facebook activity:
Now, obviously I’m not the first to raise suggestions of conflicts of interest in how Matthew Hooton um,… ‘does’ his media punditry. I mean, I’ve questioned it, and alleged other skulduggery, from time to time, but not too much – most recently August 2018: Matthew Hooton’s latest fevered conspiracy theory: lügenpresse
Memorably, in January 2019, Toby Manhire at The Spinoff described Hooton as giving him a ‘death stare’ when he had the temerity to suggest there might be some ‘there’ there.
… [Matthew Hooton] seemed very relaxed. Apart, perhaps, from a handful of moments where he bristled like a cat at some affront or other, and issued the Hooton death stare.
Like when I asked about whether his role as a political commentator – arguably New Zealand’s best known commentator, and in one of the most prominent political slots of the week, with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ Nine to Noon every Monday – was essentially an extension of his political public relations firm, Exceltium.
“No,” he glared. “It’s harmful to it.”
He held the stare for a couple of seconds, then blinked. “It’s harmful to it in the sense that some people just don’t want to be associated with anyone in the media, some potential clients. What else? It takes time. And it can piss off the very policymakers that you may then want to talk to.”
It wasn’t entirely without its advantages, however. “The benefits of it are that my name is known. So that if I call a Beehive staffer or a business person they know who they’re talking to.”
But, he said, “the two roles are completely distinct because of the nature of the work. I mean, people in the media, and particularly people on Twitter, have a perception that it would matter what’s being said on the Nine to Noon programme in a commercial sense. And it really doesn’t.”
Well, that might be true. But forgive me for juxtaposing Matthew Hooton’s “the two roles are completely distinct” with the same Matthew Hooton’s promotional blurb above referring to “harnessing public sentiment and placing extreme pressure on government policy” using “sustained print, radio and television media activity”. How distinct, really?
The Simon Bridges political assassination campaign gives us all an insight into Hooton’s apparent willingness to use his media platforms to further his clients’ (in Todd Muller’s case, Hooton said ‘friend’s) interests.
After playing his part in toppling Simon Bridges for Todd Muller’s benefit, Hooton took himself off the field: He described himself to as “too conflicted” to continue doing political commentary. (Gee, ya think?)
Oops! Goodbye Todd
Todd Muller’s unexpected resignation after less than two months as National Party leader, and his replacement by Judith Collins, had the flow-on effect of giving Hooton an escape from… commuting to Wellington.
Here, for the record, is Matthew Hooton’s strange extremely spin doctor-esque Facebook post about his resignation:
Upon his resignation from the National Party Leader’s office staff he was (wait for it) soon back in the pages of the NZ Herald — doing political commentary as before, like nothing had happened. His “too conflicted right now to do any political commentary” status was clearly a mere trifle; a thing of the past.
Cue that laughable procession of dumbarse ‘disclosure statements’ the Herald published at the foot of his columns/hit pieces to cluelessly cover its indignity.
So, who funds Matthew Hooton? Who do you reckon? Any thoughts?
We know from weak disclosures last election that Exceltium, through its then-employee (and, sigh, media political pundit Ben Thomas; formerly Chris Finlayson’s Parliamentary press secretary) was “doing a little bit of work for the ACT Party” in the run-up to the 2017 election.
Exceltium also employed the aspiring ACT Party politician Brooke van Veldon as a PR consultant, before her role as ACT Party sole MP David Seymour’s Parliamentary press secretary. Brooke is number 2 on the ACT Party list, so given any increase in party vote support, and Epsom’s dirty deal with National, she is looking likely to be an MP.
Is Matthew Hooton, or Ben Thomas doing any “work for the ACT Party” this election? Dunno.
I expect they’d make an announcement of some sort. Can’t be sure, though.
From what I’ve seen, Ben Thomas has a pretty much full-time hobby at present, running quick reaction damage control and spin for the National Party.
Just as a skilled amateur, I’m sure. No money changing hands. He’d tell us, eh?
Here’s a twist. Hilariously, yesterday, NZ First leader Winston Peter quipped a new theory: That Matthew Hooton is paying the NZ Herald to publish his hit pieces…
Winston Peters: Mr Hooton; it’s strange you have a view about one investigation and nothing about the four investigations into other political parties. You’re not working for the National Party anymore – though it might explain why you’re apparently paying the @nzherald now to print your stories.
Facts are stated to the best of my knowledge and commentary is my honest opinion. Corrections or clarifications are always welcome by email. Comments are open, but may be moderated.
– Best wishes, Peter Aranyi
PS: Update – the best line in that RNZ Mediawatch story (‘Prominent pundit pulls back…’) I referred to, is this from Matthew Hooton:
Archive copy of The Spinoff: ‘I’m completely squeaky clean’ An interview with Matthew Hooton
Archive copy of RNZ: Prominent pundit pulls back over Muller link