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From Lorna Jane to Hungry Jack’s: Here are 2020’s PR winners and sinners

This year we saw businesses respond in fight or flight mode, as an extraordinary pandemic affected the world-over. Despite these challenges, we witnessed some organisations bury into reputational damage, while others won customers over through innovation and connection.

AMP Capital’s CEO faced pressure over past sexual harassment towards an employee, with media attention focusing on the company’s handling of the situation. With months of backlash following the scandal, chairman David Murray stepped down, director John Fraser resigned, and AMP Capital chief executive Boe Pahari at the centre of the allegations was demoted.

The claim surfaced in 2017, with the former CEO reportedly receiving a promotion following the allegations.

Engaging in behaviour that compromises a person’s ability to carry out their role with integrity is unacceptable, particularly a leadership role with the power to influence culture, values and appraisals.

It was not the time to exploit vulnerable consumers at the height of COVID-19, as the public became extremely cautious of public hygiene and personal health.

Lorna Jane came under fire when it allegedly claimed on its website its ‘anti-virus activewear’ prevents and protects against infectious diseases, implying it is effective against COVID-19. The company was fined almost $40,000 for unlawful advertising.

Meanwhile, serial source of controversy Pete Evans landed himself with charges from the TGA in relation to his promotion and claims about a product called the ‘BioCharger’.

Break-ups by text message are never a good idea.

When Riot Art & Craft closed its doors on more than 50 stores, employees were reportedly informed by text they would not be required to work the next day. The relationship between a company and its employees is a two-way street, and even in the event of external party involvement, communication and engagement are essential to ensuring frontline ambassadors leave with a positive outlook, corporate image is protected, and speculation and adverse sentiment are minimised to customers and media.

These drastic business decisions are never made on a whim and neither should employee communication.

In September, Westpac recorded the biggest penalty in Australian corporate history when it reached a $1.3 billion settlement with AUSTRAC following more than 23 million alleged breaches of anti-money laundering laws.

The breaches related to suspicious transactions reportedly amounting to more than $11 billion in association with possible child exploitation, as well as failure to assess risks of money laundering and terrorism financing.

Westpac has fostered a very wholesome and community-minded culture, which has certainly been shattered by this.

It is crucial Westpac adopts optimal risk controls, keeps key stakeholders informed and is mindful of how it portrays its brand moving forward.

Let’s hope Freedom Foods cooks its products better than its books.

In December, it was announced ASIC has commenced an investigation into the organisation’s accounting discrepancies.

Freedom Foods has admitted prior results were inaccurate, swinging the organisation from $11.6 million profit in 2019 to a $145.8 million loss.

The adoption of control is crucial in maintaining a proactive organisational practice that catches any potential concerns ahead of time.

Maintaining an open dialogue with core stakeholders and immediately addressing this incident through internal investigations, role transitions and new systems will help the organisation regain market trust.

Burger King has executed some daring tongue-in-cheek campaigns this year.

In February, the chain unveiled its mouldy Whopper in an unconventional marketing campaign to convey the elimination of artificial preservatives. The successful launch went viral immediately attracting shares and engagement on social media.

More recently, Hungry Jack’s, the Aussie franchise of the fast-food company, took on its closest rival with the announcement of its Big Jack burger.

This resulted in the company landing in a Federal Court fight as McDonald’s claims it infringes on its trademark.

The ongoing publicity has worked in favour of the brand and in connecting with a younger demographic through its mischievous approach.

In a turn of events that saw Stagekings put a halt to what it does best — event staging — the company was one of the first to bring to life the term pivot.

At the commencement of the disbandment of public gatherings, the $2.5 million business evaporated within 48 hours.

From pop-up stages for major events, the company transformed into designing and building flat-pack, fast-to-assemble and slot-together desk solutions.

The quick-thinking entrepreneurs were able to bring job security to their internal team.

As a result of the innovation, the organisation has experienced wide-spread publicity and a successful new brand arm — an exceptional outcome in one of the sectors most affected by COVID-19.

At the height of the pandemic, digital and TV consumption skyrocketed as more people remained at home, with time spent on news digital sites and apps up 29%.

TikTok grew its user base by over 850,000 during the first half of 2020, making it the fastest growing social media company in Australia this year.

TikTok enabled home-bound Aussies a sense of fun, connection and light-relief in otherwise testing circumstances.

Some shade was thrown at the platform in relation to security, and the company rebutted this with an intensive awareness campaign.

Meanwhile, Zoom provided a corporate solution for all organisations and media interviews transitioning to the home.

Zoom interest soared in 2020, where it recorded 300 million daily meeting participants in April, compared to 10 million in December.

Zoom ended the April quarter with 265,400 corporate customers, up approximately 354% from the same period last financial year.

In 2020, frontline workers became heroes, and this translated to grocery-chain employees.

Woolworths and Coles were able to navigate a trying time, supporting customers through new hygiene and safety practices while managing shortages due to stockpiling.

Employees of the major chains became targets for abuse and new practices came into place to best support them in feeling safe in this crucial role.

There was ongoing communication via various channels throughout lockdown, no doubt a highly intense period for these major organisations.

This year was the year Australia’s most prized commodity became… toilet paper.

As rumours of major lockdowns put fear in the public, who didn’t want to be caught empty-handed, demand for toilet paper soared as consumers began to stockpile.

As a result, manufacturers needed to ramp up production, with Kimberley-Clark operating its South Australian factory 24/7 in an attempt to meet demand.

Companies triumphed through innovation, rapid reaction and messaging this year, and those landing in hot water typically failed to put proper controls and communication in place.

As most around the globe look to forget the year that was 2020, the front runners representing this year’s most notable PR wins and sins will not be forgotten.\

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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