February 18, 2021
July 7, 2023
by
Claudia Pritchitt
PB Comms

Who’s to blame for communication backfires?

We’ve written before on issues management and the need to avoid escalating issues into a larger crisis, or even creating a crisis unnecessarily.Unfortunately, it’s usually communications specialists who get blamed for public relations backfires, when often it’s because advice from professionals is overridden by principals who think they know best.There’s been a number of examples recently of communication backfires by all sorts of organisations - sporting clubs, public companies, governments and even whole industries.This week we saw the story unfold about the alleged rape of a ministerial adviser. There appears to be more to be told here, but already the federal government has managed to add fuel to the terrible tale with what appears to be attempts at cover-up - in the process turning what was already a crisis for the government into something much bigger.Also in the last couple of days, Facebook appears to have handled the news-sharing issue in such a heavy-handed way it is in the process of turning a sensitive issue into a reputational disaster.

At the same time, Facebook has managed to strengthen the hand of those it seems to be trying to bully.

Another recent example is when Collingwood AFL club released a damning report on racism in the club. The comment by its chairman, Eddie Maguire, that it was a “proud” day for Collingwood, is a classic example of turning an issue, admittedly already a large one, into an even bigger crisis for the club.It must be a strong contender for any award going in 2021 for “How to turn an Issue into a Major Crisis”.To us, it raises the interesting question: whether it was it bad advice by the Collingwood public relations team, or a case of the principal knows best?We have seen in the past how someone who is very used to dealing with journalists, especially one as heavily involved in media in the way Mr Maguire has been over many years, can often end up believing that they know best.

As a result, advice is ignored, or not even sought in the first place.

We might be being unfair to Mr Maguire, and the approach taken might have been based on advice from communications professionals.But any attempt to put spin on an issue when the facts are already in the public domain, or are about to be, is always likely to backfire. Making the main message about giving the club credit for commissioning the report, and ignoring past and present criticism, was bound to be a misstep.The appropriate response in such circumstances is nearly always a grovelling apology, acknowledgement of the facts, and discussion of the steps that have been developed to make right the problem.Organisations and their people can often be too close to a problem and even be part of it - a good reason to seek external, unbiased, experienced, professional help.Another recent unedifying spectacle was the Crown Casino crisis. There seemed to be no recognition of the size of the problems, the need for a clear plan to manage the crisis and corporate recovery, or the inevitable continuing media interest and further disclosures.It was always going to be a media disaster, but could the impact have been lessened with proof of recognition of past problems and a management plan, including correcting action announced earlier or at the time?Surely the revelations at the hearing couldn’t have come as a huge surprise to the company?Closer to home, in the financial services industry, we had the hearings and findings of the Royal Commission a couple of years ago. This reflected badly, not only on the industry but also individual financial institutions.To us, the way some organisations have recovered while others appear to be still struggling showed which ones had a good business plan, including sensible communication strategies. It also follows that those who managed their communications and reputation damage best, also managed other aspects of the business's response and recovery well.

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