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What can we learn from the crises in 2020. We focus on three, with four main learnings for leaders and corporate affairs folk:
– Rio Tinto and the Juukan Gorge caves disaster;
– the Australian Defence Force and the alleged 39 murders in Afghanistan; and of course,
– COVID, the mother of all crises….

(Quick Take is a niche video series that analyses various #corporateaffairs#crisiscommunications, and #leadership issues.) #publicrelations #ceos

Liam Cox:

2020 has been a year of crisis. Let’s break down three of the biggest and key learnings from each. Peter Wilkinson, firstly, Rio Tinto’s CEO was sacked after the mining giant blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan rock caves without consent from the traditional owners of the land.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yes. A number of people went, but far too late, and that’s where the damage was done. Now, I don’t know whether it’s corporate arrogance, but certainly, the company was completely out of touch with community expectations with those 46,000-year-old caves. Not only were they out of touch at the time, but they moved far too slowly to manage the situation.

They should have learned this from the Banking Royal Commission on a variety of other situations. It’s a classic case of boards being completely out of touch. They should have responded really quickly and axed identified people at the top of the organization who were responsible and axed them immediately. There would have been a possibility of righting the wrongs or going a long way to writing the wrongs quickly, but we saw this with the banks. We’ve seen a number of situations where boards, whether they’re pale male and stale, or whatever it is, they aren’t where the community’s expectation is. Great learnings from Rio Tinto.

Liam Cox:

Initially, the execs just lost their bonuses. Like you say, complete lack of understanding of community expectations and, once again, a big company putting profits over cultural and governance standards. The second, massive, the Australian Defence Force accused of war crimes. The findings in the Brereton report caused plenty of controversy, didn’t they?

Peter Wilkinson:

Absolutely it did. Now, this is really interesting because it was the guys in the battlefield who became the focus of attention and the focus of blame. It took some time before people to start saying, “Hang on, fish rots from the head.” The culture is never set by the people at the bottom of the organization. The culture is set at the top, and it’s fanciful to think that those SAS soldiers developed that culture on their own with nobody upstairs being either aware of it or encouraging it, whether it was a proactive encouragement, or a sort of benign wilful blindness, if you know what I mean.

The focus in a situation, where the culture is wrong at the bottom, is at the top. The axe has to fall up the top so that you can have a culture change at the top that filters down the organization. This is a great learning for corporations and for a variety of other organizations about how to proactively encourage good or, in that case, foster bad culture.

Liam Cox:

So many things we can learn from the third crisis, perhaps the biggest crisis we’ve seen in 100 years, the dreaded COVID-19.

Peter Wilkinson:

There’s a couple of big learnings from this. The first is on leadership. What we saw, as everybody knows, is with a combination of very good medical advice and very proactive leadership from the premiers and from the prime minister has been the ability to really change the course of the disease in Australia. It was through good expert advice and good leadership that we were able to get the outcome in Australia that so many other countries have failed to do, but what leaders and corporate affairs people can learn from that is the power of good leadership.

Now, just a point there. Almost exclusively in Australia, the ministers for health became invisible. The government’s recognized that the best person to be the spokesperson was the government’s leader on a situation like that and not to dilute it with multiple spokespeople. So they focused on the CMO, the chief medical officer, in each state and federally, as the expert. Then the opinionator, if you like, the leader, was the premier or the prime minister.

Liam Cox:

Very, very lucky to live in Australia after seeing how so many other places around the world have handled it. I think the national cabinet was a great success as well. It’s good to see politicians not playing politics for five minutes. Of course, a massive change in workplace culture with nearly everybody having to work at home for some period of time this year.

Peter Wilkinson:

This was completely unexpected and illustrates the power of culture change, where you’ve got a very strong ambition behind it. The best way to change culture is with a driver, and it can be fear. It can be excitement. It can be the desire to make money. There’s a whole lot of things that can drive culture change. What we had is a national culture change, where for 12 weeks, I think it was, everybody had to go and work from home. It was surprising how easily Australia made the culture shift. Had we said that a few months before COVID hit the notion that the whole of the Australian workforce would have to go home, or almost all of the workforce would have to go home, people would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding. It’s impossible.”

Where you need to create change, the first thing you need is a strong driver. Then you need a combination of other things. One of them is very strong messaging. We certainly had that, “Go home or you’ll get sick. Your company and the country will be a basket case.” You need a strong spokesperson who can repeat, repeat, repeat the messaging. Then you need a variety of other drivers to filter the information through. The media becomes critical in this, as well as social media and other ways of communication so that everybody understands. The big aid there, of course, is that when everybody has to do it, it’s much easier. If it was much more selective… And let’s say everybody in well, the Eastern side of Sydney and the Eastern side of Melbourne and Brisbane had to go home, and the rest had to go to work, there would have been a lot of anxiety and a lot of division, but that didn’t happen because everybody was driven by need, by the fear of the consequences of not working from home.

Liam Cox:

Well, it feels like it’s been a long year. It’s certainly been a big year. Peter Wilkinson, thank you so much for your insight and expertise. And we’ll see you all again next year.

Peter Wilkinson:

Have a great Christmas.

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