They came…they saw…they debated (mostly) civilly

Purple 25 Feb 2019
4 mins

What do you get when you throw three passionate journalists into battle against three equally-motivated communications professionals, to argue about “spin doctoring?”

That would be Thursday night’s International Association of Business Communicators WA Great Debate, held in front of a sell-out crowd at Brookfield Place.

It was the IABC Western Australia’s first debate event since launching last year and judging by the turnout and the reception of the format, it won’t be the last.

To recap, the topic was “Comms pros are just spin doctors” and the affirmative team consisted of the ABC’s Jessica Strutt and Kathryn Diss and The Australian’s Andrew Burrell, while the negative was represented by Purple’s own Karen Brown, Inpex’s Bill Townsend and HBF’s Andrew Walton.

It would be remiss of us not to mention that negative finished on the positive side of the ledger when the audience was asked for a post-debate show of hands as to who had won. It would be equally remiss of us not to mention that there might have been a fair few more communications professionals in the room than journalists!

Here are some speaker-by-speaker highlights of a highly-entertaining and good-spirited showdown.

Jessica Strutt
Jessica was in the unenviable position of kicking things off and the interesting position of having returned to journalism five years ago from a two-year stint working for the Barnett Government (a challenge she elaborated on in a closing Q&A session).

Funniest line: a totally tongue-in-cheek (and good-natured) query about the absence of Geof Parry and Basil Zempilas if the aim was to have Perth’s most powerful journos in the room.

Talking points: highlighted (again with some tongue-in-cheek) that working for the ABC was effectively “full-time community service” and pondered why journos seemed to be outnumbered 5:1 by comms professionals.

Karen Brown
Given I report directly to KB on a daily basis, you won’t hear me say a bad word about her. Then again, I’ve never heard anyone else say one either!  As is perpetually the case around the Purple office, our National Director was calm, measured and authoritative.

Funniest line: “So young, so sure and yet so wrong”- KB being KB, she somehow managed to say this to her opponents without sounding nasty.

Talking points: Noted that 16 years spent as a journo had prepared her to be a communications professional and insisted that PR practitioners were actually a journalist’s best friend: “Where there is confusion we bring clarity, where there is silence we provide quotes!”

Andrew Walton, Karen Brown and Bill Townsend. Photos: Robert Duncan.

Kathryn Diss
The ABC’s newsgathering producer went all the way back to her earliest days as a journo – in Geraldton covering the formative years of the now-mothballed Oakajee project – to establish her case.

Funniest line: We won’t quote this one for fear of it losing context in print…but it had to do with the employment origins of many comms professionals. I laughed, even if it was potentially close to the bone.

Talking points:  Signed off with a nice challenge to the negative side – “the words you [comms professionals] use matter…but the words you leave out matter even more.”

Bill Townsend
Clearly the most energetic speaker of the night, Bill scored the highest number of exit poll votes for “best debater” and probably would have won “most likely to have a stand-up career” if that had been surveyed. So far as we know, the only debater with a previous career as a submariner!

Funniest line: “I’m just a failed journalist…woe is me…hand me a hanky!”

Talking points: Raised a very relevant – and sometimes overlooked – fact about communications professionals when pointing out that they weren’t simply message-conduits for companies…they are very often senior decision-makers and leaders within their workplaces. Pointed out that the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed employers were more trusted globally than business, media or government.

Kathryn Diss, Andrew Burrell and Jessica Strutt. Photos: Robert Duncan.

Andrew Burrell
The chief WA reporter for The Australian went from reporting this week on the state’s biggest court case in recent memory to duking it out in debate – and took it all in his stride. Scored best of the affirmative side in the audience vote.

Funniest line: happily highlighted the unorthodox team alliance of News Corp Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Presumably it was a “for one night only” arrangement.

Talking points: likely triggered a flood of post-event Googling by tracking the emergence of PR as an art form all the way back to Edward Bernays (the nephew of Sigmund Freud). Cigarette advertising and the cultural woes of the banking industry featured strongly in the case he put forward.

Andrew Walton
HBF’s head of corporate affairs, communications and media referenced years of experience, not just with the leading health insurer but also previously at Lotterywest, where his responsibilities included meeting and greeting instant millionaires and pitching their stories to the media.

Funniest line: “No journo was ever satisfied with just the age, sex and suburb of a Lotto winner”- an amusing retort to the notion that communications professionals should just supply “the facts.”

Talking points: saw Burrell’s Bernays and “raised him an Aristotle.” Took the audience back to the ancient Greek philosopher’s concept of rhetoric and its bedrock of ethos (credibility), logos (clarity) and pathos (emotion) – all of which he said the modern communications professional must balance and master. Signed off on a very relevant note by outlining the increasing shift towards organisations creating content and distributing it via their own channels, rather than relying on media pick-up.

You can follow the IABC WA on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay up-to-date with future events or join up here.

Purple was a sponsor of Thursday night’s Great Debate.

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