Crisis communications management today has a whole set of rules and a list of best practices that have been honed and polished over the last century. No two crises are the same but there are some really standard rules which 99% of experts would agree with.
Crisis Comms: Scott Morrison has not read the handbook
Unfortunately, it seems no one has communicated these rules to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Perhaps it was widely assumed he knew them as he was a professional marketeer. From where I sit, Morrison’s ability to seriously upset everyone affected by the bush fires raging across South and East Australia has been beyond belief.
Here are a few obvious rules he has violated.
Look like you are in charge
Once a crisis becomes really serious – usually when it involves loss of life – it becomes the job of the boss to look like he is in charge. To do what they are paid to do and show leadership. It is not a good idea to go on holiday!
But as everyone knows that is what Scott Morrison did. He went on holiday to Hawaii while the fires raged and people were losing their homes and being evacuated. Some were even dying. The Prime Ministers Office compounded the offence by insisting the PM was not holidaying in Hawaii but refusing to say where he was.
Again, one would not have thought this was worth saying: But just as Prince Andrew forgot to show empathy for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, the Australian Prime Minister ‘forgot’ to show empathy for people affected by the fires. The clip that was perhaps most widely shared on social media showed the PM turning away from a tearful and desperate woman asking for more government help.
This theme has been aggravated by the fact that the government had previously hired someone to advise on ‘empathy’. The consultant was reportedly paid nearly AUS$200,000 to advise on how to build empathy with landowners faced with a disruptive inland railway project. It was dubbed an ‘empathy consultant’ and was the subject of political comment before the fires.
Make it clear that you care by cancelling Business as Usual
This can be a difficult one because clearly some business does have to continue even during a crisis. But anything involving fun, entertaining, extravagance, food and drink, etc. can really look bad if it is expensive and happening whilst others are suffering. On New Year’s Day, Morrison hosted a lavish reception for the Australia and New Zealand cricket teams. Again, he compounded the error by misspeaking. He said the bushfires were happening against the backdrop of cricket. This gave the impression he was more focussed on the cricket than the fires.
Get the tone right
In a crisis people are hyper-sensitive. As a leader, it is really important to get the tone right. Instead, the Australian Prime Minister seems to have gone out of his way to aggravate everyone. It is almost as if he is taking lessons from President Trump.
Not only did his office lie about him being in Hawaii but later The PM tried to justify his holiday by saying ‘I don’t hold a hose mate, and I don’t sit in a control room’. He also chose to talk about the importance of work/life balance comparing his decision to go on holiday with a plumber who had to decide whether to do one more job or spend time with his kids. We are all in favour of analogies, but they do have to be risk assessed! The plumber analogy was not fit for purpose.
The whole tone was reminiscent of BP’s CEO during the Deepwater Horizon crisis. He is remembered for saying he wanted the crisis over because ‘I want my life back’! The phrase that was particularly crass as 11 lives were lost when the rig initially exploded.
Um…Don’t be an ostrich!
Finally (for this blog) the Prime Minister’s New Year message appeared to equate the fires with other natural disasters and did not mention the issue of climate change. One wonders if he knows who Greta Thunberg is and whether he has clocked that she is currently the voice of a global generation of angry youngsters – many of who are about to get the vote.