Back-flipping on an issue might not always be such a bad thing

Brands changing their minds once a decision has been made isn't necessarily a bad thing - but that doesn't apply to Coles' recent PR disaster - argues crisis comms expert Tony Jaques.

  1. When an organisation or individual changes their mind on a public issue, it is often derided as a back-flip or flip-flopping or a u-turn or caving in. But sometimes it is just part of the process of reaching the right decision.

Take the case of Australian supermarket giant Coles. The company announced they would phase out lightweight plastic shopping bags in favour of paid heavier-grade bags, then decided to make the replacement bags free on a temporary basis to allow customers to adjust. Then they announced the new bags would be free indefinitely, but quickly changed their mind to make them free only until the end of the month.

Was it messy and unhelpful? Undoubtedly. But it surely was not, as an article in The New Daily was headlined, “one of the greatest PR bungles in history.”

Compare it, for example, with genuine PR disasters such as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz claiming the passenger brutally ejected from one of his aircraft was “disruptive and belligerent.” The incident lost the airline $1 billion in market value. Or British High Street jeweller Gerald Ratner light-heartedly describing his own products as “total crap,” which led to the virtual destruction of the entire business. Or BP Boss Tony Hayward’s infamous plea in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that he’d “Like my life back,” which the New York Times described as the “soundbite from hell.”

Regardless of the merits of the plastic bag issue, over-stated media analysis raises the obvious concern whether such hyperbole deserves any place in serious commentary on an important issue of the day. Moreover, it also leads to the more important question: Does such exaggerated characterisation of a reversal inhibit future willingness to pursue proper and appropriate important changes of policy?

As ABC commentator Julia Baird wrote recently: “We need to stop stigmatising public expressions of doubt or error – when they are genuine and not simply opportunistic – and instead welcome them as healthy and human. Have we abandoned the entire concept of evidence-bad persuasion?”

American political editor Jamelle Bouie went even further, arguing that rather than maligning flip-flopping, it should actually be seen as a skill. “The best Presidents can use it to further their goals and take advantage of new opportunities,” he says. “The worst, by contrast, are doctrinaire and rigid – unwilling to move from positions they adopted under different circumstances, and resolute to the point of disaster.”

For examples of ‘change for the better’ look no further than the Australian Government which initially opposed an inquiry into the finance industry, then embraced its capacity to expose wrongdoing. Or Lyndon Johnson, who abandoned his career-long opposition to strong civil rights measures to pass the strongest such measures in history after he became US President.

The key here is to understand the big picture, not just the short-term headline or the cheap media jibes. Because, as Todd Purdom described in Vanity Fair, there are good flip-flops and bad flip-flops, just as there is good and bad cholesterol. What makes all the difference, according to Purdom, is knowing the difference between the two.

But for all that, we continue to call for change and then jeer when it comes. So, should an organisation or individual be able to change their mind on a major public issue without being accused of an opportunistic back-flip?

Absolutely… provided it comes after real research, new information, changed circumstances and genuine evaluation of the options.

But not, repeat not, if it’s simply a knee-jerk response to some social media criticism – albeit not exactly “one of the greatest PR bungles in history.”

This piece first appeared in Tony Jaques’ Issue Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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