PR disasters of 2013

Lists are an unfailing source of media coverage, discussion and sometimes even debate. Someone somewhere is always excited by lists from best-dressed to the most powerful lists. Lists of best books and best films are even sometimes very useful although what is often best about them are subsequent exposures of undisclosed links between recommender and recommended.

One of the lists of most interest to PR practitioners is Gerry McCusker’s annual list of PR disasters which can be found on his blog  or in the latest edition of PR Report The list combines vicarious pleasure, some schadenfreude, and lots of opportunities for reflection. McCusker’ list (paraphrased from PR Report and the McCusker blog) is:

1. The Essendon Football Club supplements scandal (for readers outside Australia this is Australian Rules football and is roughly analogous in significance to major league baseball or gridiron although without the same history of drugs which, of course, makes it more newsworthy.

2. Drugs in sport in general through a long term Australian Crime Commission investigation.

3. Indonesian relations with Australia following the Snowden revelations about phone-tapping scandal.

4. The Waterhouse/Singleton spat – a spat between celebrity businessman John Singleton and celebrity racehorse trainer Gai Waterhouse following a television contretemps.

5. Media regulation reform – Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was assailed by many sections of the media over his proposed reforms.

6. Mining tax repeal –  the Abbott government efforts to repeal Labor’s Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

7. Craig Thomson expenses – the MP’s alleged use of Health Service Union credit cards to pay for porn and prostitutes.

8. Collingwood Football Club (see Australian Rules above) when a young fan sledged indigenous player Adam Goodes with an ape slur combined with club President, Eddie Maguire’s, comments about Goodes and the musical King Kong.

9. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse which is exposing religious and other organisations over protection to abusers and failure to stop the abuse.

10. Politicians’ expenses when not long into office Tony Abbott encountered his first scandal over his and other politicians’ misuse of entitlements.

The blog is not too sure about the list. It would probably put ALP communications in the nine months up to the September Federal election at the top of the list followed by the Indonesian phone tapping and the politicians’ expenses – the latter particularly because it played out very strongly in word of mouth communication.

The blog also has an inbuilt aversion to taking any celebrity spat seriously and one wonders whether it can be considered a disaster when both parties were probably delighted with the coverage and their ability to push real news off the front pages. Although given the state of our media – online and mainstream – it is unusual to have real news on front pages. Worse, of course, celebrities probably think they are real news and online media suggests their self-estimations about newsworthiness are probably valid.

The Royal Commission into child abuse is probably a special case. The abuse went on for decades and it was remarkable that the churches and others managed to keep it under wraps for so long. The PR disasters started when they got found out and when they tried to justify what they had done about it – especially the ham-fisted efforts of Cardinal Pell. More importantly, by the time a Royal Commission is in train the disaster is much, much more than a PR disaster as shown by the impacts of the Irish inquiries into the church’s abuses in that country. One might as well call the Council of Trent (1545-1563) a PR disaster (although it was by no means a PR success) because it failed to undo the damage already done to the church by the brilliant communication campaigns of Luther, the reformers and the cutting edge technology of the printing press. Arguably it did address some fundamental problems but failed to re-unite the religious community and may well have been a factor contributing to the 30 years’ war. Two new-ish books Trent: what happened at the Council by John O’Malley (2013) and Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson (2009) provide fascinating descriptions of both. Indeed the blog plans to give a copy of the Trent book to an old friend who has done a bit of PR work in the religious field as a New Year present.

As for the Conroy media reform announcements one needs to consider the objectives and the strategy adopted before making a judgment. If the objective was to achieve media regulation reform it was a failure. If the objective was to appear to do something about it while burying the issue it was a great success. If the objective was to appease the media then it was just plain dumb.

The blog has had some guernseys in McCusker’s discussions of PR disasters which we can’t say we enjoyed quite as much as the mentions of competitors, friends and enemies. But we also look forward keenly to the annual list and wonder what might be on the 2014 one. During the year the blog will try to make some predictions.