We can learn a lot about crisis PR and corporate affairs campaigns from watching politicians during elections. Decisions are continually made on the run, as in a crisis. Watching people under extreme pressure allows us to see some at their worst, others at their best.

We don’t see an analogy between this weird outcome and Trump’s election or the Brexit referendum. Here the issues are uniquely about two leaders. Distilled to its barest essentials, in any analysis we look for six critical success/fail-points.

1.   Unity of strategy

2.   Strength of spokesperson

3.   Compelling narrative

4.   Simplicity

5.   Nimbleness

6.   Resourcing

If we are opposing an organisation, these are where we look for weaknesses. If we are defending an organisation these are the areas we try to ensure are strong.

1.   Unity on strategy

In organisations, it’s critical that any personality clashes at board or executive level are hammered out before a crisis. When the pressure is on from media and there’s a decision needed quickly, sometimes in minutes, suppressed differences are exposed. In addition, people behave differently when they are scared, tired or otherwise stressed. Poor decision making is almost always the outcome.

This is why we do crisis rehearsals – to hammer out the kinks, and mitigate poor decisions driven by stress.

Coalition:

We thought disunity would be the Coalition’s undoing. It was there for so long for all to see. Tony Abbott lost his seat because he was one of its architects. The Coalition’s skill was to hide this defect, and make the election the ScoMo campaign, with almostno reminders of disunity, anywhere.

Labor:

Keeping Coalition disunity at the front of our thinking was Shorten’s opportunity. To us, that failure seemed such a basic mistake, especially as it was a Labor strength. Negative campaigning – pointing out your opponent’s weaknesses – is an essential in debating.

2.   Strength of spokesperson

In any organisation, a strong leader is a major asset. Flip through the business pages of any paper and see the leaders and the influence they can wield.

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Both political leaders were relatively weak spokespeople, compared to Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Howard. The NZ PM, Jacinda Ardern, has become a role model for fronting a crisis. 

Hawke was an authentic ‘bloke next door’, evidenced over decades of public life: his drinking, his tears, his disgust at Apartheid, and his shared delight at winning the America’s Cup.

We think the Coalition was clever to promote ScoMo as the ‘bloke next door’. However, the test is, will it sustain. Morrison’s recent re-brand hasn’t convinced us yet. Yes, there’s charisma and jolliness, but the warmth and empathy of Jacinda Ardern is still to be seen.

That said, it helped win the election.

3.   A compelling narrative

In any business or political debate, your narrative must connect with the audience. This is one of the great challenges for this era of social media, information overload and a media demanding hourly updates. Add a smarter, less tolerant, more fickle audience, now empowered by the same factors. Failure to adapt to these twin forces is why trust in business and government continues to sink to new lows – the misdemeanours are the same, but now harder to hide, plus our tolerance has changed.

Shorten’s team failed badly with the narrative. Weirdly. With hindsight, that team didn’t understand the audiences. It was such a basic mistake. Too many messages, and too scary for too many people. The messages didn’t connect with the audience on Adani’s coal mine, on investors’ negative gearing, and retirees’ franking credits.

The Morrison team made the most of its weak messages, on tax cuts and the surplus. It’s hard for a government to promote more of the same, which is often about all a returning government can offer.

4.   Simplicity

An organisation in a crisis must send a simple, memorable message that connects, often quickly: an apology; a fix; a sacrificed CEO; redirect blame. Witness NAB and AMP’s failure to do this following the Hayne royal commission revelations.

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We can’t work out how Shorten’s team missed this so badly and presented us with so many messages. James Carville’s famed white-board scrawl, ‘The Economy, Stupid’, in the ’92 Clinton presidential campaign became folklore for a generation of communication pros.

On this the Coalition won. Its message was simple. Morrison’s challenge now is the lack of vision; Keating spoke of the must-have Big Idea.

5.   Nimbleness

This is critical in a crisis, and why crisis rehearsals are so important. A risk framework complete with complex risk register, is meaningless if an organisation can’t make good quality decisions quickly – often according to the demands of the media cycle, and sometimes in 20 minutes.

Governments and Oppositions are great role models for this; they do it every day.

6.   Resourcing

Both parties seemed sufficiently resourced. Clive Palmer even more so!!

Again, organisations that scrimp on resourcing in a crisis suffer – that’s obvious. Less obvious is the importance of suitable funding to prepare for a crisis and the post mortem.

Failure to put some time, people and dollars into crisis preparation is simply poor governance, and it’s a requirement for listed companies.

The temptation after a crisis is for the executive to simply go back to work after minimal internal changes. Yet don’t expect a different outcome by simply doing the same things better.

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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