Analysis: PR Disasters of 2019

Monday 9 December 2019 by By Simon A Morgan - PR Lecturer

danger sign in water warning of thin ice

When organisations and individuals fall into self-centred greed, selfishness or secrecy, the ingredients are there for a disaster.

In summary

  • PR disasters will always be with us and they all have a common thread: the breakdown of trust, greed and the lack of transparency, writes Swinburne's Simon Morgan

PR disasters, there’s been a few this year, but there always are!

Think of Bill Shorten on the day after the May election the pollsters told him he couldn’t lose, Prince Andrew’s disastrous television interview and the farce of United States’ President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un racing by plane and train to Vietnam… and leaving with nothing but a stamp in their passports!

But, some of this year’s PR disasters have been far more sinister.

Think of the Banking Royal Commission, the actions of China in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crisis, which cost 346 lives and has turned the strap line ‘If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going’ on its head.

And then, there are the courts.

Whoever advises to sue is recommending increasing your pain.  Think of how Israel Folau has affected rugby ‘s reputation, how journalist Tracey Spicer’s legal threats against women who spoke to her about sexual violence have tarnished her reputation and how Murdoch University made itself an employer of last choice by taking action against its own academic Gerd Schroeder-Turk for speaking out on ABC Four Corners.

As usual, there are also significant ‘smouldering’ PR disasters this year - the fate of Australia’s 12 French-designed submarines, for one. Budgeted to cost us $50 billion, they have now blown out to $225 billion - for technology that will be obsolete due to the Industry 4.0 revolution and 5G technology, which is coming our way from 2022.

PR disasters are evergreen

PR disasters will always be with us and they all have a common thread: the breakdown of trust, greed and the lack of transparency.

Actor Felicity Huffman bought her child’s place at an American college, thereby disenfranchising an eligible student. Once outed, Huffman at least had the decency, or perhaps took career-saving advice, to plead guilty and accept her sentence. Huffman’s was a case study of what to do when confronted by the court of public opinion - don’t attempt to argue back - and show your humanity.

PR is meant to be about ethical persuasion.

When organisations and individuals fall into self-centred greed, selfishness or secrecy, the ingredients are there for a disaster.

But how do organisations, such as our billion-dollar banks, blindly lead themselves into trouble so often?

As a former financial services executive, I can say it is the tension between the customer and the owner’s demands - and weak-minded managers selecting one over the other - without necessarily the complicity of the senior management.

A simple test for leaders to determine if they are making a good PR decision is to question ’How would this look on the front page of The Age?’

Which brings us to the most obvious PR Success of 2019 - the ‘Your Right to Know’ campaign, which literally beamed across the media landscape, challenging the federal government’s slide into secrecy. Already, the campaign has brought about significant change in Canberra’s approach to journalists and the public’s right to know.

A robust fourth estate helps keep persuasion ethical, and it is a pillar of our democracy to cherish.