$15k spin class for Defence officials on water contamination angers residents of Williamtown

PREPARED: A Defence official addressing reporters at Williamtown. It's been revealed personnel have been receiving specialist training in how to speak to the media about water contamination. Picture: Marina Neil
PREPARED: A Defence official addressing reporters at Williamtown. It's been revealed personnel have been receiving specialist training in how to speak to the media about water contamination. Picture: Marina Neil

The Department of Defence has plunged thousands of dollars into a “media awareness” course, coaching staff on how to field questions over water contamination at its military bases. 

Tender documents show just under $15,000 was paid for the workshop – run by a Victorian public relations firm called “Media Manoeuvres” – at the end of last year.  

News of the spend has rubbed salt in the wound for residents living in the vicinity of the Williamtown RAAF Base. They have not received a cent in compensation following revelations Defence has polluted their properties with toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals. 

They are now pursuing a class action to claw back huge falls in property values. 

Lindsay Clout, of the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group, was gobsmacked by the tender documents. He said it was not the dollar value of the course, but what it represented, that angered him most. 

“It is a confronting thing to read, considering the fight that we’ve had to fight and we’re still not there,” he said. 

“I ask myself why the hell do these people need media training to talk about the contamination, if all they need to do is to tell the truth?”

He added that many residents had faced the daunting experience of being interviewed on national television and radio, without any professional training. 

A Defence spokesperson said its personnel were given training to support them in roles that require community or media engagement and public speaking. 

”The training conducted at the end of last year provided media skills to base support managers and estate facilities managers located within the South East geographic zone of the Estate & Infrastructure Group within Defence,” they said. 

“As there are four sites in the South East Zone under PFAS investigations, the topic of water contamination was relevant to the attendees, and provided them the appropriate training for their role requirements.

“Training and development courses for Defence employees do not impact Defence’s ability and commitment to provide support to communities affected by PFAS contamination.” 

Media Manoeuvres is directed by the former public relations manager for Crown Casino, Sam Elam. According to the company’s website, its media awareness training teaches participants to “learn the danger zones and the repercussions of straying from their boundaries”. 

“A good spokesperson will be able to address the media and stay on-message, whatever the question,” the promotional material reads. 

Member for Paterson Meryl Swanson described the media coaching as “farcical”. 

“All this does is cement less trust … we need less spin and more substance,” she said.

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