Unite for the Recovery advertising

24 July 2020: We have written back to the New Zealand Taxpayers' Union about its concerns over Unite for the Recovery advertising in some media.

24 July 2020

Jordan Williams
Executive Director
New Zealand Taxpayers' Union

Tēnā koe Mr Williams


I refer to your letters dated 9 June 2020 and 15 June 2020 raising concerns about Unite for the Recovery advertising in some media. 

You have raised concerns about advertisements placed in newspapers on 9 June 2020, including advertisements in the New Zealand Herald and Dominion Post. You have also raised concerns about Unite for the Recovery television advertisements on a number of channels, including on Sky Sport on 13 June 2020 and 14 June 2020. You have indicated a specific concern about the use of the phrase “we’ve got this”, which you consider to be too similar to the phrase “let’s do this”, which has been used in Labour Party campaigning.

In your view, the messages are inappropriate because they are political in nature.

As you may know, there are Guidelines for Government Advertising approved by Cabinet and contained in the Cabinet Manual. In addition, the State Services Commissioner issued guidance to the state sector in June about the coming general election.1 That guidance includes information about advertising, publicity, and the media.

In considering your concerns, we asked the State Services Commission (SSC) to provide us with information about their processes for considering issues like the ones you have raised, and about the consideration given to these two types of advertising. 

The response we received from the SSC rightly emphasises that public service chief executives are responsible for adhering to the above-mentioned guidelines and for ensuring that any publicly funded advertising campaigns are politically neutral. The SSC provides assistance to chief executives on these issues.  Complex election issues are considered by the Central Agencies General Election Co-ordination Group (Central Agencies Group), which includes senior leaders from the SSC, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Treasury.

The SSC told us the Central Agencies Group considered the newspaper and television advertising you raised with us and discussed it with the All-of-Government COVID-19 Response Team (Response Team) at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They considered a number of issues in relation to the advertising, including the importance of political neutrality, the right of the Government to govern up until the election, the need to avoid any public perception that public funds are being used to finance party political purposes, and the consideration of public interest, including the benefit to the public of the advertising.  

The Central Agencies Group provided advice to the Response Team that, if it intended to continue the public information advertising campaign into the pre-election period, the Team needed to be clear that it was demonstrably necessary for the advertising to occur at that time, and that the mode of communication used best informed the public about programmes available to them. 

The Group also recommended steps the Response Team could take to mitigate the risk of a perception that publicly funded and resourced publicity is being used for party political purposes. Those steps were:

  • ensuring that any Unite for Recovery advertising relates to social behaviours with a clear public interest (such as health messages or shopping locally) and not to government programmes;
  • ensuring that the advertising continues only for so long as is necessary, and that it tapers off as soon as possible and well before the date of the election;
  • the uniteforrecovery.govt.nz website is limited to offering neutral links to the government programmes responding to COVID-19 and behavioural messages; and
  • the brand is reserved for use for official Unite for Recovery material only (that is, its use is not permitted on other State sector publications, other websites, or email signatures).

Following the response from the SSC, we asked the Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to outline to us how this advice was implemented and what steps were taken in respect of the advertising. 

The Chief Executive told us that the advertising was constructed to meet the Guidelines for Government Advertising, in particular as they related to encouraging the public to adopt certain kinds of behaviour generally regarded as being in the public interest, and were part of what was intended as a broader campaign to inform the public about government services available to them. 

The Chief Executive told us that with the move to Alert Level 1, the public information campaign shifted its emphasis to recovery, with messages about buying NZ made, shopping local, and seeing New Zealand. There was also a need to provide information on the range of public services available to New Zealanders to manage their lives during this unprecedented time. He has noted that the use of the phrase “we’ve got this” was, in context, part of a broader statement: “We’ve shown that we’ve got this. Now let’s show that we can recover too.” 

The Chief Executive also told us that there was a change in the focus of the public information campaign from 16 June 2020, when New Zealand recorded its first active case of COVID-19 for 24 days. At this time, and as planned, the focus of the advertising campaign immediately shifted back to Unite Against COVID-19, emphasising the public health messaging. We were also told that all social media channels have now switched from Unite for the Recovery branding back to Unite against COVID-19 and this will continue until the international threat of COVID-19 is eliminated.

The Response Team has also notified all public sector chief executives of this approach, and emphasised the importance of the public sector operating consistently, and in line with the official advice received from SSC and Cabinet Office. 

Having talked with these agencies, it is evident that:

  • the Government, through the Central Agencies Group, has a process for considering questions about Government advertising such as those you have raised;
  • that Group has considered the newspaper and television advertising you have referred to and has provided advice to the Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet about it; and
  • the Government does not intend to use the Unite for the Recovery messages prior to the election, and will focus on the Unite Against COVID-19 public health messages.

We note that the advertising was outside the regulated period for election advertising, which began on 19 June 2020. 

In light of this, we consider the Government has taken appropriate steps to ensure that the advertising was in line with established guidelines. We do not consider there has been any inappropriate spending of public funds.  

Thank you for taking the time to write to us and bringing your concerns to our attention.  

Nāku noa, nā

David Lemmon
Manager, Inquiries

1: See ssc.govt.nz/our-work/parliamentary-election-2020/general-election-guidance-2020/.