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Are Australians an angry lot or is the PR machine broken?

Three significant public relations fails have played out in the media already in 2022. Cricket Australia’s bungled contract negotiations with coach Justin Langer were universally derided. Nearly all recent media appearances or policy announcements from Prime Minister Scott Morrison have gone pear-shaped and the WA Premier’s backflip on the borders went down like a lead balloon.

Have PR professionals lost the ability to massage the message? Are they misreading the mood of the public or has social media just made it impossible to say anything positive or to find a light at the end of the tunnel? Add to that an Australian public that is ‘pandemic exhausted’ and it seems even the slightest sign of a misdemeanour turns once happy-go-lucky Australians into seething ball of rage. I would suggest we are all a little over it.

When you’re dealing with emotional topics like borders, health, sexual abuse or even sporting icons, the message and the handling of the issue needs to be carefully crafted and delivered. These three examples are textbook examples of what not to do. There are significant minds and analytical thinkers behind all three of these disasters and a lot of money invested in the communications and public relations of these two political leaders and our world known sporting icon the Australian Cricket Team. All the planning, de-risking, key-messaging, follow-up, and execution means nothing if those that are delivering the message are not holding up their end of the deal. On paper, the communications strategy might be sound but if it’s not expertly delivered, it won’t work.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a communication professional’s nightmare. Even the nickname ScoMo isn’t going to make him likeable. He appears to have very little emotional intelligence or genuine empathy when topics turn emotional or personal. His responses to questions from journalists appear contrived and manufactured, and his delivery lack authenticity.  And don’t get me started on that smirk. This is an election year, and you get the feeling that the Prime Minister is under more pressure to appear likeable and normal. But it seems, the harder he tries, the further he slides down the slippery slope of political credibility.

The WA Premier Mark McGowan is not a natural media talent. He often looks awkward, uncomfortable, and occasionally angry when having to do the daily press conference. He certainly has had his moments when we have been enamoured with him, most notably when he cracked up explaining a runner would be fined for stopping to eat a kebab.  But his backflip on the date of the borders opening was handled poorly, and this has caused a major fall in his popularity. He was far too tricky with his previous statements on border opening dates, and refused to admit he had misled people. He’s taken a hit in the popularity stakes, but still has strong support with many West Australians.

As for Cricket Australia’s senior management, they just went missing. Instead, they used a journalist and past players to sow seeds of doubt and to question if the team was going to find future success under the current coach. Cricket Australia was referred to as “gutless and spineless” on social media with the offer of a new contract, when really all they wanted was for Langer to resign. He had just won the World Cup T20 and the Ashes series 4-0. How can we go as a cricketing nation from a state of euphoria and joy for our national men’s team, to having a coach who was just an embarrassment? Talk about misreading the mood of the public.

Social media is easy to blame for the outrage, the bile, and extreme commentary across the multiple platforms. Yes, it can be manipulated by those with an agenda, but it sometimes seems those that have the loudest voices on social media also have the smallest following. The real skill of communicating and storytelling seems to have been lost in 2022 for a tired, scared, and nervous public. More effort needs to be taken to understand everyone’s point of view, plus our leaders need to show much more genuine empathy this year if they want to take Australians along with them, and remain leaders in the future.

Nic Hayes is the Managing Director of Media Stable

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