The government’s affinity for PR spin and marketing jargon hasn’t fared well as Australia’s leadership appeared to remain two steps behind the bushfire crisis. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of the emergency has seen him tarred and feathered both in Australia and internationally.
Headlines like ‘When will Australia’s Prime Minister accept the reality of the climate crisis?’ In The New Yorker were common. Thousands of Australians protested his leadership and his government’s response to climate change and the bushfire crisis.
People were chanting and holding up placards “Scomo has to go” the mocking hashtag #scottyfrommarketing was trending. Mr Morrison was the managing director of Tourism Australia in 2006 when the “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign was created by international advertising heavyweights M&C Saatchi.
On December 18 as the fires raged and Mr Morrison was overseas on a family Hawaiian holiday, model Lara Worthington (nee Bingle), who famously said the line, Tweeted: Scott Morrison: WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU??? #AustraliaBurns #AustraliaFires
Even when he cut short his holiday, there was still criticism of Mr Morrison. Reports of him being shunned by distressed bushfire victims, forced handshakes and dismissive comments about climate change continued to make headlines.
The Prime Minister copped flak for his delayed response in sending in defence force resources, compensating volunteer firefighters, blaming others for forest management practices and downplaying warnings about a forecasted horror bushfire season.
Photos taken of him with the Australian Cricket Team at Kirribilli House and comments where he implored fire-affected Australians to be “inspired by the great feats of our cricketers from both sides of the Tasman” drew ire, showing he misread what the public wanted to hear.
So, for a man with a background in marketing and a large PR team around him what went wrong? The deeper question begs, what of those educated advisors behind the office of Prime Minister? Why is the PM’s handling of the disaster likely to be discussed at universities teaching journalism and PR for years to come?
Leadership Presentation Coach and University of Queensland Public Relations Industry Lecturer Tony Biancotti says all leaders can learn from Mr Morrison throughout the summer, including his visits to bushfire-ravaged communities.
“In theory, it is normal and ‘looks good’ for leaders to be seen on the ground at a trouble spot ‘supporting the troops and comforting the distressed’ – but the PM’s visits, in my opinion, were clumsy, ill-prepared…and captured on camera,” he says.
McDonald Inc.’s Program Director of Change, Communication and Culture, Liz Kearins agrees. She says Mr Morrison has missed an enormous opportunity to connect with the electorate.
“History shows politicians often achieve a popularity boost from showing leadership, courage and vulnerability during a crisis, because in doing so they allow us to connect with them on a deeply personal and human level,” Liz says.
“Think of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern comforting grieving relatives after the Christchurch terror attacks or former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh making a teary appeal to the Queensland spirit during the 2011 floods.
The former journalist says if there’s even the faintest hint of spin-doctoring behind the scenes or inauthenticity people will see through it.
“It’s got to come from the heart, when it’s real, raw and largely unscripted that’s when there’s a genuine opportunity to make a connection and rally the community behind the cause.
“It’s tough to come back from a miss-step on the national stage when emotion is running high.”
Every leader is entitled to a holiday. The summer Christmas and New Year period is traditionally a time when business, educational institutions and politics is replaced with days at the beach, cricket, tennis and, for some, overseas trips.
“It was ok for him to be away at the time but if you hear your country is in trouble, you need to respond and come back quickly,” Tony says.
“I think after this disaster politicians may holiday somewhere closer to home rather than going too far away because, as we’ve heard, bushfire season is going to get worse and it’s a matter of being prepared.
“Maybe the answer is to plan longer overseas holidays at a different time of the year when there’s less chance of natural disasters – you need to be practical.”
Tony says the world is changing and leaders along with their communication teams need to realise the old days of PR spin no longer work.
“There are so many television shows and commentators pointing out the spin, so smart people are aware of it,” he says.
“You may notice politicians — and Morrison has done this — saying, ‘I understand’ but you have to show you’re taking action by saying, ‘I understand, and this is why I’m going to…’
“To say ‘I understand’ is not enough these days.”
In times of crisis, there is no flawless PR strategy and often people are looking for someone to blame. However, Tony says it’s during these times when people look to leaders for genuine empathy and authenticity.
Tony was also skeptical of the Federal Government’s decision to call a Royal Commission and says it seems to be a common fallback when disaster strikes.
“Calling a Royal Commission sounds like serious action and it is often a sign that leaders take a matter seriously and want an investigation to improve a situation and stop problems happening in the future,” he says.
“However, (and I am not saying it is so in this bushfire case) calling a Royal Commission is a stalling tactic – buying time and giving leaders an excuse to refrain from further discussion by saying ‘the matter is before a Royal Commission.”
He says as we’ve seen with the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, not all recommendations are adopted.
“There’s often delays with Royal Commissions, a lot of expense and usually they are not binding on the government to do anything with the findings,” he says.
Tony says calling for a Royal Commission can be a common public relations tactic so, it’s important governments are held accountable to enact recommendations.
“People get sick of it and think not another Royal Commission haven’t we had enough, there’s a certain cynicism associated with them,” he says.
“Often the government who calls the Royal Commission will be out of power by the time it has been held and the report and findings compiled.”