Come in Spinner: What makes a crisis management apology credible?

Crisis management was once the PR area everyone wanted to be renowned for – leaping in, handling media, rescuing brands, living on adrenalin, booking a spot on the lecture circuit and generally thinking you were a player in the premier league.

Crisis management, however, has changed. Largely because many of the crisis procedures companies follow have been systematised very effectively; partly because best practice is now well disseminated (there are lots of crises after all); and, partly because PR people have discovered the power of the apology.

The problem, as Alan Jones has shown, is the nature and timing of the apology. Crisis management apologies remain a matter of some contention between lawyers and PR people although an uneasy consensus has developed about how to do it without admitting liability. The oil company, after a big spill, which had its CEO say that the lawyers had advised him that the company was not responsible for the spill but that they felt as if they were was an example of how the balance could be struck. The Australian Wheat Board had some advice from Dr Peter Sandman, a risk and crisis specialist Come in Spinner has referred to before, about the need to ‘over apologise’ for its actions. It seems the lawyers and the incumbent PR advisors prevailed over that advice. Given the findings of the Cole Royal Commission, and its findings about individuals and their credibility, some apologies might have been a very good idea.

Alan Jones faced a crisis. Interestingly enough it didn’t come from calling for the Prime Minister to be killed by drowning in a chaff bag at sea, or by guillotine, or by saying she lied every time she stood for Parliament – but for being totally insensitive about her father’s death. But it was an apology which repays close analysis to reveal what a PR person might have advised differently. (Jones may have had some PR advice but on Sunday night Come in Spinner was not aware of whether or not this was the case, or if it was, who provided it. Any information gratefully accepted.)

Jones said that he ought not to have made the comments but sort of justified them by saying he had heard them said earlier , it was a ‘rollicking’ night and that they represented a ‘black parody’ understandable from people who feel ‘frustration’ because they have ‘nowhere else to turn’. Terrible isn’t it for all those people frustrated and denied a voice except on the shock jock programs and the media company which has newspapers in most capital cities and nationally. The apology also made it clear that he didn’t think it would really affect him because advertisers would stick by him; and, that someone in ‘his position’ ought not to have said it, particularly about the PM. Should anyone?

A seasoned professional, and probably a post-grad student, would have been able to quickly deconstruct the apology and conclude: not sincere, not authentic, not very contrite, not comprehensive and flagging some hostages to fortune. Equally Tony Abbott’s intervention could be similarly characterised. The comments were ‘out of line’ and it was ‘good’ he had apologised.  You might criticise a rugby backline for getting out of line but it seems a tad inadequate for this case. Of course, by Monday or Tuesday he will be saying people should ‘move on’ or be attacking the PM for being so ungracious as to not take Jones’ calls. George Brandis (once considered a small l liberal) was worse focussing on the fact that it was ‘poor taste’ but that it hadn’t actually been a Liberal Party function as if that was somehow the issue.

Media Watch once analysed the Jones’ audience and demonstrated that it was not as important as imagined when considered in the light of which electorates it covered, what the age and voting profile of listeners was and how influential it was in those electorates. The conclusion was that Jones was influential because he was treated as influential – a classic case of the Emperor with no clothes.  David Marr’s essay, A Political Animal, pointing out the problems Malcolm Turnbull experienced when he was less than reverential of Jones, illustrates the point. Equally when Macquarie Bank’s Nicholas Moore (not then CEO) was dismissive in 2002 of Jones, the pressure to genuflect became too great and he recanted from his comment that: “I don’t think anyone cares what he thinks”.

Whether those apologetic inadequacies will have an effect on Jones, or encourage people to see if Jones’ looks more like Prince Harry in the London Sun than the powerful emperor he is imagined to be, depends on how players start to think through how they can respond: pressure on advertisers, legal action, protests (well Jones is in favour of that himself) or other avenues.

In the meantime, one can’t help wondering what might have happened if Bob Hawke had been on the receiving end. Julia Gillard seems to share some of John Howard’s stance on legal action against the media and others. But if it had been Bob, despite the Jones’ apology, Holding Redlich might already be gearing up to try to add a French chateau and an apartment in New York to the swimming pool and other baubles they managed to win for him in the past.