How badly managed crisis communications damage a Government’s reputation

Parliament house

By Shelley Maher, Senior Consultant, Icon Reputation & PR

The Prime Minister is no stranger to the art of managing his leadership while spinning many plates.

His reputation is based on handling a plethora of public-facing issues, including fulfilling election promises, his own likeability, management of his administration, and the decisions he makes during a crisis.

In the case of a crisis managed well, our response to COVID-19 has seen trust in government, and the scientific community, over pandemic management rise. A recent McKinsey paper said that “Australia’s COVID-19 response has been characterised by effective actions, policies, and leadership practices—implemented through strong collaboration between the public and private sectors—that are transferable and repeatable elsewhere”.

But if we flip this scenario and look at a crisis managed badly, we know that chaos unfurls because of an under-reliance on those very same factors: leadership, collaboration, evidence.

Last week, we saw this play out in what is now being referred to as the ‘Culture Problem’ week in the Australian Parliament. As a former political adviser myself, I am no stranger to witnessing this ‘Culture Problem’. But, as a communicator by trade, I have been reflecting on the events that unfolded last week and feel puzzled about the inconsistent communications approach from the government.

To recap, a young woman alleged that she was raped in a ministerial office in March 2019. She said that she felt she had to choose between her job and pursuing a police investigation. Her incredible bravery for speaking to the media on such a deeply traumatic issue is to be commended.

What ensued after this story broke was nothing short of a hotbed of mixed messages, leaks, arguments and political grand-standing. The collective response from parliamentarians was panicked and rushed.

The tell-tale signs are sprayed across news websites for all to see: A disjointed narrative about who knew what and when. Not one, but four inquiries announced – with only one of them being independent of the Prime Minister’s Office, causing huge backlash. All in the same week that the Family Court was abolished, which is being painted by media commentators and advocates as anti-women.

This was a damaging week – not just for the government’s reputation – but for that of the entire parliament. Because of inconsistent communication, it further embedded the public perception that the hill isn’t woman-friendly, and that a deep culture of misogyny perpetuates.

It was a timely reminder that managing high-profile crisis communications is just as much about planning as it is response.

For organisations considering their own crisis communications – here are my five top tips:

  1. Run a risk register. Create a traffic light system of scenarios that could occur from least to most likely and be clear about what impact these risks could have on your organisation. Make sure this register is briefed to your senior leadership team and board.

  2. Choose your crisis team. These are the key personnel who will be confirming your organisation’s position on any given issue, liaising with media and controlling messaging. This includes internal team members and key stakeholders as credible voices.

  3. Communicate the facts as soon as they come to the fore, clearly, and often. Holding back from communicating in a timely way can create distrust in stakeholders – be it from constituents, shareholders, memberships etc.

  4. Be consistent in your message. Inconsistency in language or approach to a crisis challenges the legitimacy of the conversation.

  5. Remember the 4 R’s: recognise, respond, regret, remediate.

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