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The changing face of a political scandal

By Mikela Dennison, Senior Account Executive.

If you've been paying any attention to the media this week, you will be well aware of the extra-marital affair between Auckland Mayor Len Brown and local politician Bevan Chuang which has come to light after the latter signed an affidavit and went public with the details of the two year relationship.

It's certainly not the aim of this post to unpick the moral elements of the scandal - that's already been done enough elsewhere and will continue to be commented upon in the days and weeks to come.

Instead of taking the moral high ground, I'd like to bring your attention to the changing way in which the scandal has been treated in a changing media and communications environment.

If you consider how the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair was treated, the story developed in a largely controlled by print media and radio discussions, in a more static, one-way, controlled manner.

Not so with the Len Brown affair.

From screenshots of text messages between the Mayor and his mistress, to Facebook conversations between the mistress and her new (very politically active) beau who was pressuring her to collect and release evidence of the mayoral affair, to the way in which official statements and stories have been released online and in real time, this series of events has all the hallmarks of a real shift in how we treat, examine and discuss major scandals in the public sphere.

The online anatomy of a scandal

Take a look at some of the ingredients of how the story has unfolded online so far:

- Right wing blog Whaleoil releases details of the affair, with screenshots of texts between the Mayor and the mistress (who was later identified as Bevan Chaung). All other media (print, online, radio) then take their lead from the blog, but few name it as a source

- The popular Twitter hashtag #sexandthesupercity quickly gains prominence as the story breaks, and then became the NZ Herald's headline for the story the next day in their print edition

- Len Brown releases a short online statement acknowledging the affair and saying he won't be addressing the personal details of the story. The statement is quickly picked up by online media and blogs

- Whaleoil releases leaked details (complete with screenshots of emails) of how the NZ Herald plans and constructs its stories in advance and in conjunction with political parties

- An award-winning business journalist with the National Business Review is dismissed for allegedly ignoring instructions to treat the story neutrally, following an online editorial on the affair, in which support for Brown to stay in office was expressed.

Power shift

Micro conversations around the scandal, the individuals and journalists involved, and what should happen next are all rolling out in real time, for all to see, on platforms like the comments sections of blogs and news articles, in Twitter conversations and in Facebook posts.

Search for Len Brown on Twitter right now and you will instantly see a stream of comments from media, political pundits and the public, all weighing in with jokes, memes, witty (and not so witty) hashtags, links, conclusions and questions about the scandal.

The traditionally private dissections of a scandal among the public have become just as public as the affair itself.

The traditionally one-way, controlled media outputs surrounding political scandals have become a two-way, free for all, where comments and links can turn the story down a new avenue.

Print taking the lead from online

The whole affair (excuse the pun) has been largely an internet-mediated story so far, with the print media taking the opportunity to go into more detail in the days following the scandal coming to light; the NZ Herald apparently doubled its print run the day following the story breaking online, and is said to have made more sales this week by covering the scandal than it has in quite a while.

The media at large is also coming under fire for becoming too 'tabloid' like with regards to the treatment of and reporting on the story, but the continuous stream of comments would suggest people are still very much interested in the story.

Serious implications

In the wake of the scandal, there have been some more serious implications than the disclosure that the Mayor bought his mistress Chloe perfume and cheap black lingerie.

- A formal investigation has been launched into the mayor's spending of taxpayer funds

- A senior NBR journalist was dismissed.

- Questions are being raised as to whether the mayor's privacy has in fact been breached with the publication of intimate details.

- The intense pressure that the mistress was under from both the media and political figures to disclose evidence about the affair has been highlighted, with the Young Nat's Party publically distancing itself from the emotional abuse directed to Bevan Chuang by a John Palino campaign member and Young Nat associate.

These points all suggest that even though the face of a political scandal is changing to a much more socially and online-mediated one, the fact remains that the consequences and fallout of such an event are still far reaching, and very much of interest to the media and the public.

It will be interesting to see how the story continues to develop over the coming days and weeks – and how the changing communications landscape will interact with the facts.

Communication lessons

The communications lessons we can take from this week would surely be this: if you, your business or organisation are embroiled in a scandal or controversy, be very aware, conscious and prepared for the fact that the story could well develop online faster and more powerfully than you might imagine:

- Have a plan in place for how statements will be released in the event of an issue, who will be the spokesperson for the organisation, and how questions will be answered

- Consider if and how you will respond to social media comments

- Be prepared for more details to come out of the woodworks than ever before, because the power to reveal information has shifted from the traditional media gatekeepers to a more savvy, engaged and vocal public, who won't hesitate to comment and propel a story forward if it so takes their fancy

- And above anything else, never underestimate the power of a blog to kick off the largest political sex scandal Auckland has ever seen.

Do you think the way the scandal has been treated points to a new era for reporting and discussion of public affairs? Leave your comments below or join us on LinkedIn to continue the discussion.

If you ever find yourself needing professional, strategic communications advice in a moment of crisis, we can help to create and distil clear messages to get your brand back on track. Check out what we do and then get in touch to arrange a coffee and a confidential chat.