Head to Head: Should comms bosses take the fall after a crisis?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues and talking points. This week, Issues Outcomes' Tony Jaques and Mahlab's Lily Carlyon go head to head on whether comms bosses should take the fall after a crisis.

Two weeks ago, Rio Tinto announced it would be parting ways with its group executive of corporate relations, Simone Niven, as well as its CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and chief executive of iron ore Chris Salisbury, as a result of the Juukan Gorge destruction in May.

Responsibility for the destruction of heritage site fell partially within the communities function of the corporate relations business arm, and with Niven at the top, blame was quickly directed her way. Many questioned her lack of experience with Indigenous relations. The Board Review of Cultural Heritage Management stripped her of the community function, but as shareholders called for accountability Niven was cut from the business.

But should she have taken the fall? In what crises can we hold comms bosses responsible?

Should comms bosses take the fall after a crisis?

Lily Carlyon, head of communications, PR and social at Mahlab, argues ‘No’:

Crises come in all shapes and sizes – from product recalls and leadership failures to security breaches. Comms bosses should not take the fall when they inevitably hit headlines. We should be judged on how well the company communicates when they do.

We’re there to advise businesses on when to speak and what to say. Our job is to help an organisation communicate clearly and effectively and ensure that those impacted by the crisis stay up-to-date as information unfolds.

This is no small task. You’re usually charged with ensuring that staff, customers, consumers, media, government and a myriad of other stakeholders are being communicated with. You’re generally also responsible for ensuring their questions, concerns and comments are being responded to in a timely and consistent way. We’re there to help a company manage the reputational impact of a crisis rather than make the crisis go away.

Comms bosses therefore shouldn’t be expected to take the fall when a company is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. The big caveat is if the comms boss was involved in decisions that led to the crisis taking place.

The announcement that Rio Tinto’s Group Executive of corporate relations will be leaving the company at the end of the year is a good example. Simone Niven was not only leading the company’s communications team, she was responsible for the organisation’s community relations. In this position, she has to take responsibility for the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters that happened in May this year.

Should comms bosses take the fall after a crisis? Absolutely not. If the communications surrounding the crisis were effective, clear and timely, we have done our job.

Tony Jaques, director of Issues Outcomes and author of ‘Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict’, argues ‘Yes’:

When bad communication advice leads to a reputational or financial crisis, the people concerned absolutely should be held to account in the same way as other executives – including potentially losing their job.

That assumes the communications lead was directly involved, had influence and knew about the issue – or should have known and got involved.

The problem we face is that the communicator is sometimes a convenient scapegoat for bad decisions by others – a bit like that popular excuse of “blame the intern.” Look no further than when the NSW Supreme Court eventually blamed the Board of James Hardy for approving a misleading media statement, not the communication person who wrote it.

However, there is another element of responsibility which has been highlighted by the Rio Tinto case, which is the role of the communications lead to bring external viewpoints and opinions into the organisation. To ensure that corporate decisions do reflect what has come to be called “community expectation.”

That term is in danger of being trivialised as an excuse when things go wrong. For example, when the Queensland Firebirds failed to give court time to their only indigenous player during Super Netball’s Indigenous round last week, their coach claimed that they “misread community expectations.”

In the corporate context, understanding community expectation and driving that into decision-making, is now very clearly a core role for communication professionals.

In most crises we typically don’t know exactly who advised what before a decision was made, and whether good advice may have been over-ruled. But if it genuinely is a case of failing to understand and champion critical community expectation, those responsible for community relations and community engagement need to be accountable and should risk joining other executives on the way out the door when it all goes wrong.

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you are a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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