Media lessons flow from water exports

Scott Macleod | Account Manager Politics

Should businesses be allowed to export our water?

It’s a simple question that has seen eyes bulge and faces redden all over the country as normally-sane Kiwis grow increasingly apoplectic with rage.

Fists are regularly pounded on pub tables to emphasise the assertions that water is a precious natural resource that should remain in the country and that businesses are making too much money from selling it.

Now hang on a minute. 

Although it’s true that exporters are paying very little to access water, neither is anybody else – 50 times as much water is used for irrigation in New Zealand as is exported. In 2012, New Zealand dairy farmers were estimated to require up to 160 litres of water to produce one litre of milkAnd a lot of that milk was exported without any hoo-ha. Although dairy farmers do cop flak for destroying our lakes and rivers with farm runoff, few people complain about the massive quantities of water they’re using or how little they’re paying for it.

Why the double standard?

It’s all about perception – and water exporters have failed to control those perceptions. A narrative has become embedded in the public consciousness that paints water exporters as money-grubbing opportunists. It’s hard to change a narrative once it’s formed. As noted by water-export proponent Keith Woodford, it’s like trying to unscramble an eggThe early exporters should have developed key messages that anticipated criticisms while accentuating the positives aspects of their enterprise. Here’s three message ideas: the quantities are tiny, the industry is clean, and the resource is renewable.

Any criticism of those messages could have been deflected by comparisons with the dairy industry, backed by the type of punchy quotes that linger in the minds of opinionated pub philosophers.

“It’s a drop in a milk bucket.”

“We’re cutting out the middle-cow.”

It was left to an academic to come up with the second quote.

By then, it was already too late.