28 Mar 2018
By Wright Communications
We can all think of small things going wrong that wrecked major endeavours. Like the misplaced permit-to-work certificate on the North Sea Piper Alpha oil rig in 1988 that led to an explosion killing 167 rig workers. Or, at an everyday level, the trip on the stairs that brings years of painful rehabilitation.In Public Relations, it's mirrored by small slips that can doom a career or at least set it on the back foot for a very long time.
The old adage about reputations taking years to develop and seconds to destroy comes to mind with a couple of recent very high-profile reputational slips on either side of the Tasman.
The first was Radio NZ content manager Carol Hirschfeld's meeting with the Government's Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran in a Wellington café.
The second was Australian cricket captain Steve Smith's decision to get a team member to illegally tamper with the ball in an effort to rescue his team from a thumping Test defeat against South Africa.
Hirschfeld is a highly respected and immensely capable broadcast veteran. Smith may well have been on course to rivalling the great Don Bradman as Australia's finest cricketer.
But both have incurred a significant reputational "hit" as a result of seemingly small acts.
For Hirschfeld, having a conversation with a Minister who will shortly be deciding who gets the public money in broadcasting, was a clear "no-no". Suggestions it wasn't pre-arranged, which have been refuted, have no bearing on the action. A conversation was had which might be perceived as an attempt to influence the Minister on whether RNZ gets favoured in the funding allocation. The Minister is also in the gun over the get-together too, with Opposition Leader Simon Bridges gleefully adding the meeting (and clumsy attempts to cover it up) to his growing list of recent Government flip-flops.
Hirschfeld and Curran will likely survive this indiscrete episode, but Smith looks likely to take a popularity and career dive that may be difficult to recover from. Often touted as the second most important Australian after the Prime Minister, the Aussie cricket captain carries a huge load of responsibility - cricket is like a religion across the ditch and he's the High Priest. To have sanctioned a team member to cheat is simply "not cricket" - and the Australian public and cricket figures have been thunderous in their condemnation. Smith's earnings from playing and sponsorship are around $8 million a year; that income is already looking shaky especially the sponsorships. Sponsors do not like immoral behaviour by those they support and use in their promotions.
Distilling the PR lessons from these two incidents, the first is that very public figures are under the highest scrutiny around the clock. If you meet in a public café with someone you possibly shouldn't be talking with, you must expect someone to notice and put two and two together - and probably not in a charitable way. To doctor the cricket ball with a bright yellow piece of sticky tape during a Test when up to 30 cameras - and they're just the official ones - are trained on your every move, is plain nuts.
What were they thinking?
High-profile figures have to be doubly squeaky-clean. Especially when they're seen as "public property" so to speak, the national cricket captain, the Government Minister, the Government-funded broadcaster. What they do doesn't just have to be kosher, it has to be unmistakeably kosher under the most stringent scrutiny. At this time in Government deliberations over broadcasting funding allocation, what's a risky thing to do? What's the dumbest thing to do if a top-level sports game isn't going your way?
To be fair to Smith, ball-tampering isn't that rare. And you have to also remember at this stage that there's no evidence yet that Hirschfeld and Curran's conversation touched on anything taboo.
But the reality is: the game is up. They've been outed and the damage control machinery is kicking into action all-round. Hirschfeld resigned almost immediately the news broke; Curran's future as a Minister is clearly on the table. Smith (and his co-conspirators - yes, that's the language they're copping) have been stood down, and may not pick up bat or ball in an official capacity for up to a year. To many people, that may be a light sentence.
Reputationally, parallels have been drawn with the infamous underarm incident from 1981, where Trevor Chappell rolled a ball to a kiwi batsman to avoid him hitting a six that would have drawn the game. Chappell says the ignominy and castigation hasn't diminished in the 37 years since; his marriage broke up as a result, he never remarried and hasn't had any children. That's incredibly sad.
Common sense and prudence might have avoided all the grief though. A simple test - as we often advise clients - is to consider what might happen if your actions were reported on social media and went viral.
If you want to steer clear of the firestorm that often follows a momentary, rash, unthinking act that catches the eye of the media (or people who have an interest in attacking or undermining you)…
Avoid momentary, rash, unthinking acts.
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