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Waka Kotahi’s PR team of 88 sparks debate

The Government’s spending on PR is under scrutiny following criticism from various parties about Waka Kotahi’s PR team more than doubling since 2017. Excessive spending or justified social change campaigning?


The transport agency’s PR team has reportedly grown from 32 staff in 2017 to a team of 88.

This morning, AM Show co-host Melissa Chan-Green questioned how many PR staff the transport agency needed suggesting it was being used on YouTube ads with minimal viewers.

“What are they all doing at Waka Kotahi transport agency?” she asked before bringing up a photo of a sign for the Road to Zero campaign.

“That sign cost $4,885 so they thought, ‘you know what, that’s a bargain, let’s get two’,” Chan-Green said.

Results from Standard Media Index (SMI), a source of advertising pricing and spend data in the marketplace, found that the Government category had the largest total ad spend in March, soaring 42.5 percent year-on-year.

“Government ad spend has emerged as by far the largest advertiser category during the pandemic, with total Government ad spend jumping 32.4 percent from the previous FY to now be at $140 million,” says Jane Ractliffe, SMI Managing Director.

Jane Ractliffe.

National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown believes this spending is unnecessary.

“This Government is addicted to spending. What New Zealanders want is better infrastructure and better roads, not millions and millions getting put into consultants for projects which should’ve been already delivered,” he was reported saying.

However, Simon Lendrum, Chief Executive of the Commercial Communications Council, says “it’s easy to do a quick hit job” without fully understanding what it takes to “effectively communicate to impact behavioural change”.

Simon Lendrum.

“Those same voices that criticise topline numbers would be the first to come out and say ‘the Government has spent X on a new health programme, and only 12 people have benefited. No wonder – why didn’t they tell anyone about the programme?’ There are plenty of examples of New Zealand leading the world in behaviour change programmes – not least the Covid compliance that required simple, coherent and consistent messaging to ensure New Zealand understood what was required and how to participate.”

Elaine Koller, CEO of Public Relations Institute of New Zealand, agrees with this sentiment saying the scope of what PR staff do is “incredibly broad”.

“Often the headlines say ‘Outrage X numbers spent on public relations’ and when you delve a little deeper you see that the sum includes marketing, above the line advertising as well as salaries, and a lot more. 

“[Waka Kotahi PR staff] will be working in areas of internal and external communications, stakeholder engagement team, the digital team etc., so it is a significant number of people who do very different roles. Waka Kotahi is a very large, complex organisation and all of us as citizens have a need to know what’s going on.”

A Waka Kotahi spokesperson told StopPress that the size of the communications and engagement team reflects “the statutory requirement of Waka Kotahi to undertake comprehensive community and stakeholder engagement when delivering a wide range of transport projects”.

“Many of our communications and engagement staff work primarily in community engagement, and the recent increase in staff is commensurate with an increase in the range and type of infrastructure and behaviour change projects undertaken by Waka Kotahi. This includes additional programmes such as the New Zealand Upgrade Programme and Road to Zero, as well as responding to Government expectations and requirements around climate change and mode shift, which involves new projects like the Clean Car Discount.

“Waka Kotahi also supports community engagement on behalf of Te Manatū Waka Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Social Development and the Minister of Transport on national regulatory policy changes. This includes running consultation and engagement campaigns on behalf of the policy agencies to inform the draft and final form of rules and acts going before Parliament.

“This work is vital to ensure that the public and stakeholders are well informed and have the opportunity to provide feedback, and it is necessary to establish the community goodwill which is needed to enable projects to proceed.”

About Author

Ayla Miller is a Feature Writer/Sub-editor for SCG Media Business titles, NZ Marketing, StopPress, Idealog and The Register.