A case study in clusterf.ck PR management

It turns out that the BoM fiasco (see the last blog) is now a great case study in clusterf.ck PR crisis management.

The Saturday Paper has got the full inside story of the disaster and put it on this weekend’s front page – and it’s worse than the blog thought. The blog had wondered about toxic managers and their impact on culture in this saga and that is allegedly a large part of the BoM situation.

In The Saturday Paper (22 October 2022) Rick Morton writes that: “The workplace culture at the Bureau of Meteorology is so toxic that a man was hospitalised twice for psychiatric care, another had a heart attack while working extreme overtime, and was asked to come back earlier than a doctor advised, and at least five more staff took stress leave because of panic attacks and anxiety regarding management oversight.”

He says that 20 staff have left the BoM media and communications team in the past 18 months. Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about the size of the division this suggests it needs to be remembered that communication with the public is probably one of the BoM’s most important roles – a role which can’t be done without significant expert internal resources.

According to Morton BoM has spent $260,000 since June last year employing causal staff from the consultancy Elm Communications Canberra to fill gaps. It’s also alleged media managers have also banned staff from mentioning climate change in the context of severe weather events although Morton reports that a BoM spokesperson has denied this.

There is also apparently a Comcare report citing a psychiatrist treating a BoM employee that there were “problems in the workplace culture, high work pressure and excessive hours, despite my medical certification in December 2021 urging moderation.”

Morton quotes a BoM employee as saying: “There is so much focus on rebranding efforts like this and all of this window dressing and, in the meantime, the staff are really struggling to get the work done.”

…and the branding exercise is not only unpopular internally but also far more expensive than imagined. Morton says BoM initially paid $90,000 to a brand company for a planned name change and a new ‘positioning project” and then employed another consultancy on top of that.

Needless to say a big part of the problem is a change management program BoM was undertaking – admittedly branded as reform presumably to get away from the now toxic notion of ‘change’ – which saw regional centres shuttered and State managers sacked.

On top of this an incoming manager did, what managers always seem to do in such situations, got rid of this consultancy and employed another one headed by Jack Walden a former President of the Victorian Public Relations Institute of Australia on a $70,000 contract after a “limited tender”. Morton writes that Walden is now a senior manager within BoM – whether this is on secondment from his firm or a new career option for him is not known apparently.

According to Morton neither Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, nor her office were aware that the new look was going to be released in the middle of a flood crisis. Her office was also unaware that the full cost of the rebranding was closer to $750,000 and that EY had earned another $93,000 for market research on the new brand. It would be wonderful to hear what they found. Perhaps we will find it when BoM front up for its next appearance before a Parliamentary committee.

And, just in case you imagined that all this toxic culture was an invention by staff Morton reports that BoM top managers employed a conflict resolution firm, Momentum, to mediate workplace disputes and teach staff how to get along.

The blog, being old-fashioned, had always imagined that culture and workplace dispute resolutions were a primary responsibility of the CEO and senior managers. Indeed, if things were that dysfunctional in many companies the Board of Directors would be arranging exit packages for the CEO.

Morton also took the trouble to look up Momentum’s website to see what they actually did and what they might be offering BoM.  He found they boasted that: “From a place of deep presence, curiosity, openness, and no blame, we listen and look through multiple lenses, be it conflict, a change process, relationship opportunity, power or rank dynamic, conscious or unconscious systemic forces, or embedded narrative.

“Momentum’s services are sought when there are symptoms of a blame-ridden, judgemental, disengaged culture where low morale, negativity, gossip and finger-pointing may exist, with little or no understanding as to the underlying cause.”

That a consultancy offering something like this gets a gig with BoM suggests rather a lot about what someone or other in BoM thought the internal problems were and what caused them – that is unless they just loved all that hippy dippy jargon.

Anyway – we also know what the next development will probably be. BoM will hire another consultancy – this time with expertise in crisis management.