Former marketer Scott Morrison’s bushfire messaging isn’t good leadership, and it isn’t good PR

As the country burns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's messaging isn't strong, yet comforting. It's spin. Bad spin at that. Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks how a former marketer could be so bad at navigating his way out of the PR hole he's dug himself into.

Unprecedented bushfires are scorching the country. At least nine people are dead. Half a billion – half a billion – animals have been burned alive. 381 homes incinerated since Christmas Day. Those numbers will only continue to rise. The sun is permanently red, the population choking on the smoke cloaking our cities and towns. A haunting picture of a small boy in a boat, wearing a mask – redness coating everything in an apocalyptic haze – is seared into our memories and onto our newspapers’ front pages. Small towns have been obliterated, the message clear for anyone living in or travelling to the New South Wales south coast, for example: This is only going to get worse, get out and stay away.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison projects a frightening detachment, digging himself deeper and deeper into a PR crisis that reflects an incapacity for both good leadership and good marketing.

This afternoon, during a press conference, the PM said that “the best way to respond is the way Australians have always responded to these events” and “we cannot control the natural disaster”. Yet firefighters and scientists have made it clear that this disaster is unprecedented; and when a crisis is unprecedented, historical responses won’t suffice.

He was out of breath, repeatedly called for “patience”, and appeared irritated at even having to be there, let alone answering questions. It was uncomfortable viewing, and not because he was finally confronting uncomfortable truths.

Speaking of uncomfortable, there’s also this photo he posed for with the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams earlier this week.

Hosting the players at Kirribilli House, posing for insensitive photos and holding a game of backyard cricket, the PM said these fires are “something that will happen against the backdrop of this [Friday’s] Test match”. The nation is burning, but our Prime Minister thinks we “will be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers”.


It’s terrible messaging and marketing for a former marketer.

Morrison was managing director at Tourism Australia in 2006, when Lara Bingle (now Lara Worthington) fronted a notorious campaign, the slogan of which came back to haunt the PM as he fled the disaster our volunteer firefighters raced towards.

More than a decade after its conception, the country – and Worthington herself – flung the now-famous question at the adman-turned-leader: “Where the bloody hell are you?” The answer? In Hawaii, on holiday.


The optics were bad. But, even worse was lying about those optics. Initially, Morrison’s office said he’d be on a “couple of quick days of leave”. Then it was revealed he’d sent a text informing Labor’s Anthony Albanese that those “couple of quick days” were actually a week’s holiday. When journalists asked the Prime Minister’s Office if the PM was in Hawaii, it lied.

But the PM suggested his role was one of support, not action.

“I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room,” he said, speaking to 2GB’s John Stanley from Hawaii.

“But I know that Australians would want me back at this time … of these fatalities. 

“So I’ll happily come back and do that.”

Allison Marion’s photo of her son as they fled their burning Victorian coastal town, Mallacoota, by boat

And so the Prime Minister returned two days early from his holiday.

How did Australia’s first ‘marketing Prime Minister’ not think like a marketer? It’s a terrible look for the country’s top public servant to take a break as homes burned to the ground and firefighters died trying to save them.

But the astonishing (lack of a) crisis communications strategy didn’t stop there. When asked about his decision to holiday at such a time, Morrison said: “We all make decisions … we all seek to balance our work-life responsibilities and we all try and get that right.

“Whether it’s on a Friday afternoon and you decide to take that extra plumbing contract and you said you were going to pick up the kids, or something at my level, these are things you juggle as parents.”

Yes, he claimed a burning country is one of the “things you juggle as parents”. That a plumber taking on more work before the weekend to the detriment of time spent with their children is the same as a country’s leader taking time off work during a national emergency.

And during his New Year’s Eve message, the PM admitted to expecting more bad news out of both NSW and Victoria in the “days and weeks and, I fear, months ahead”, but didn’t link the conditions to climate change and global heating.

“But one thing we can always celebrate in Australia is that we live in the most amazing country on earth and the wonderful Aussie spirit that means that we will always overcome whatever challenges we face,” he said.

“That we will always look optimistically into our future.”

Except people are not optimistic. Flames and fear engulf them. Anxiety has worn communities down. These fires have been raging since September. And it’s clear that without any climate action, the disasters will only worsen and stretch on. The future will be just as burnt and red and smoky as these past months have been.

The “wonderful Aussie spirit” isn’t an antidote to climate change. 

The PM added that “there’s no better place to raise kids”. What a strange message to emphasise when children ushered in 2020 hiding from fire on beaches, not playing on them.

And such messaging isn’t translating as hopeful, but as unrealistic spin. He’s gone from ScoMo to #SmoKo, Prime Minister Scott Morrison to #ScottyFromMarketing. These trending hashtags reflect people’s deep exhaustion about, and fear of, an ongoing lack of leadership.

If the PM was a high-profile CEO, the company would be buried underneath the weight of such a PR mishap, and he’d have been cornered into resigning, like Westpac’s Brian Hartzer

But urgent leadership, and climate action, isn’t just needed to rehabilitate Scott Morrison’s reputation and weather this PR crisis.

Our survival depends on it, as the “[best] place to raise kids” continues to burn.

If you’d like to assist with bushfire recovery, relief and rescue efforts, please explore the options below: 


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