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2019’s PR Sins and Wins

Slip-ups to scandals through to downright shameful acts, 2019 fielded an avalanche of these headlines that dominated our media. 

The year kicked off with a little de ja vu and a catastrophic typo that would leave most marketers to call it time on their career. Sydney commenced its fireworks celebrations announcing the wrong year. No, City of Sydney, we’re not all here for 2018 – we did that. Last year.

All the world’s eyes were upon Cardinal Pell’s sentencing in March for a six-year gaol term. The jury unanimously found Pell guilty of five sexual offences committed when he was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-97. As the Australian media was prevented from informing the public of the charge initially, international news leaks reached our shores. Over the years we have witnessed priests convicted for molestation and harassment charges and have yet to see the Catholic Church take a strong vocal and active position to protect minors, most recently reportedly standing by Pell’s appeal which is now set for 2020. As an institution that purportedly encourages truth, care and kindness, it’s a questionable stance given Pell was convicted following evidence in the court of law.

It appears restaurateur and TV chef George Calombaris has been busy cooking gourmet creations and beyond, as it was reported in media that employees were underpaid $7.8m. This followed initial revelations in 2017. George issued a public apology and a shake-up of the Masterchef line up was also announced this year. The media controlled the messaging agenda throughout the storm. If it is the case that the underpayment was self-reported, organisations need to consider all stakeholders to more effectively manage the fallout and messaging of a serious issue. In this case, both employees and the media should have been front-of-mind in communication as the self-reporting aspect was missed in a lot of the initial media reports and weakened the subsequent interviews and statements made.

But underpayment of employees has been uncovered in a number of major organisations this year. Woolworths and Bunnings to Which Bank? Commonwealth Bank – if you’re not good with numbers, what hope do the rest of us have?

Following a united Fab Four front, and the extravagant wedding and baby announcement, things started to derail with an onslaught of media reports around the world, continually criticising Meghan Markle’s various choices. In a documentary, Meghan aired some vulnerability and the pair announced a six-week break. In this case, a number of situations started to unravel the dynamic duo. Lavish Hollywood baby showers; contradicting behaviours of campaigning for sustainability and then jumping on a jet; to defying traditional Royal practices like the showing of the baby and isolating herself from the crowd at Wimbledon. There’s also been the rumours of infighting – despite William and Harry upholding a very strong bond over the years. Meghan is regularly compared to Kate who immediately fell into royal tradition and was really effective in establishing and maintaining a favourable, humble image.

Alan Jones was under fire following inflammatory comments about favoured NZ PM, Jacinda Adern. This isn’t new territory for Jones. We’re seeing a pattern of abusive remarks with last year Gladys Berejiklian as the target. As a person with a profile, your reputation is influenced by the sentiment in media reports and public commentary. Public figures are role models and their actions are influential – and this is even more important with the statistics around violence against women. His initial apology was undertaken grudgingly and still on the defensive. Listeners and advertisers voiced their view with their wallets and it was important that Alan personally wrote to Jacinda to apologise.

The Israel Folau post in April that turned into a sacking and finally a settlement by year end had all eyes upon the way the matter was handled by both parties. The comments made in the joint statement by Folau was exactly what should have been acknowledged from the outset and prevented the snowball effect. This wasn’t about one post – this was about voicing publicly hurtful and offensive words that misaligned to the majority of Australians and Rugby Australia’s core values.

Epstein’s conviction and death has uncovered an underworld of abuse and harassment as politicians and Royals became embroiled in the scandal as more allegations are exposed. While the causes surrounding Epstein’s death have been questioned, attention swiftly turned to Prince Andrew and accusations around past misdemeanours. With his media manager walking away and Prince Andrew’s train wreck interview, he has stood down from formal Royal duties. Any ethical media adviser would walk if there was truth to the claims or face damage to their own reputation. If there is truth to the allegations, then Prince Andrew’s best approach is to face the ramifications as the extent of further damage would be unrecoverable.

Westpac has fostered a very wholesome, socially led organisation over many years. The gravity of the discovery by AUSTRAC completely shattered the bank’s integrity. To champion human rights and sustainability causes on the one hand, and then fail to identify, address and mitigate these from your organisation is extremely damaging to the organisation’s ethical standing and reputation. Particularly when discoveries into this matter were initially raised back in 2017. Reports that CEO Brian Hartzer didn’t consider the situation as a “high street” issue, further tainted the matter.

Though it wasn’t all scandals that peppered 2019. We saw some wins from Melania Trump’s short bob hair cut that went viral garnering $36m in online news publicity, to the moment Jennifer Aniston graced the world to debut her Instagram presence gaining over 16.5m followers in just a short 10 days. No one can argue Greta Thunberg and climate change haven’t dominated headlines this year – and a little ongoing banter between team Trump and team Greta making a little light in an otherwise ‘heated’ topic.

Nicole Reaney, Director of InsideOut PR and founder of influencer agency, #AsSeenOn . Nicole has extensive experience in corporate and consumer PR and Communications and is available to comment on topics.

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