Opinion: It’s time veteran MP Damien O’Connor took a crash-course in political PR

Veteran Government minister Damien O’Connor has committed the cardinal political communications sin by refusing to shut down a damaging story with one simple five-letter word: Sorry.

Last week, he said that Covid-19 had taught those in the embattled tourism sector “not to be so cocky”.

He was lambasted by those in the industry for being so insensitive about their struggles.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said “cocky” was not how she would have “characterised” the issue.

That might sound rather benign, but it is an expression of public disapproval nonetheless.

It’s a story that should have already run its course by now but O’Connor has let it spiral out of control after he dug his heels in this morning.

Not only did he refuse to say sorry, he made it worse by saying that “cocky” was actually a “term of endearment”.

He was immediately criticised by National and no doubt the chorus of voices in the tourism sector its self will continue crying foul.

But, most importantly, his failure to apologise means the story continues to make headlines and create headaches for the Government.

This is something well known by Labour ministers in this Government, who have now seemingly mastered the art of saying sorry to shut down a story.

In late December 2019, then Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi apologised after it was revealed he mishandled an immigration matter to do with Opshop frontman Jason Kerrison.

“I have apologised to the Prime Minister and understand I have let her down,” Faafoi said at the time.

The result? The story ended. He stemmed the bleeding and the matter was forgotten about.

After Ardern was criticised for taking selfies with supporters on the campaign trail in Palmerston North – while Auckland was at alert level 2 – she quickly said sorry as well.

Earlier this month, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins apologised mid-media stand up for comments he made about Pacific Islanders not going to Queenstown at the beginning of said stand up after at first refusing to relent.

O’Connor had the opportunity to do that today.

Instead, he has made the situation worse and further inflamed an already fraught relationship between the Government and the tourism sector.

This comes after he made diplomatic waves after said Australia should “follow us and show some respect” to China.

O’Connor has been around for a long time – he was first elected in 1993.

He is Ardern’s most experienced minister.

Despite his years of experience, he has become something of a handful for Ardern as of late and a point may come when she will begin to question his judgment.

It might be time for the veteran MP to take a crash course in political public relations.

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