Heavy is the head that wears the crown – until you lose it

Damian Marwood, general manager of Herd MSL, shares his thoughts on the recent Optus communications crisis, and how there is a key difference between corporate messaging and speaking to customers.

I have no interest in piling on now-former Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin.

I have absolutely no doubt that Rosmarin has given it her all, reassuring employees and customers, managing press and sitting before policy makers each more desperate than the next for their soundbite to make the nightly news broadcast.

I also have no doubt she was offered gratuitous communications advice from every man and their dog, each becoming an instant communications professional, with few having ever spoken to a journalist.

However as we know, irrespective of whether an outage or data breach is the fault of the CEO, dismissal is often the heavy price that CEOs pay when things go wrong. It’s why they’re paid the big bucks.

There has also already been much written by pundits on Optus’ ability to manage not one but two crises in relatively short succession. The consensus being that strategies, and at times silence, fell well short of expectation. The honest truth though is that no communications strategy is ever bullet-proof, less so when it comes to managing a crisis and especially a crisis where your channels of communication are broken as part of the very issue you are responding to.

It was said to me very early on in my career that PR and corporate communication is an art not a science; that there is no scientific equation to follow that gives a concrete guarantee to deliver a positive result. That the brush strokes that paint a positive picture on one occasion likely lack the nuance to paint the next masterpiece.

The most recent storm that engulfed Optus did however paint one very clear picture. That dry and sanitised corporate messages are not up to the task of delivering the humility required when people’s lives and identities are affected. And without humility don’t even think about empathy or authenticity.

Whether it be in the parliamentary hearing or in media interviews, Optus gave us a masterclass in this, as Rosmarin landed a smorgasbord of corporate messaging; one after the next, after the next.

In just one interview the following messages were landed by the CEO:

“We really exist to give great service to our customers”.

“We pride ourselves on giving reliable services to our customers every day”.

“We operate a very good, a very reliable service for our customers”.

“We offer them great value, we offer them unique services”.

“We pride ourselves on going the extra mile for our customers”.

“We exist to delight our customers and provide them with great connectivity at excellent prices.”

“We have great quality people at Optus who are committed to doing the best for our customers.”

“We exist to delight our customers, not to disappoint them.”

Having media trained over 100 execs I would usually be quite impressed by this. But this time it felt, well, off. It lacked an ability to connect with customers and say ‘we stuffed up, and we are really sorry about that’.

Bayer Rosmarin

The persistent use of corporate messaging became a distraction. It simply added wordcount. It was like saying something without saying anything at all, which is sometimes what happens when a carefully curated statement is reviewed by throngs of stakeholders who are more focused on the bottom line than the need to be human in a tough moment. In fairness, there were multiple apologies landing either side of these messages but the corporate key messages diluted that authenticity, it diluted the apology.

So why not just say: “We are deeply sorry for the disruption caused to millions of Aussies and Australian businesses. We know that Australians expect more from us and we let them down. We are working tirelessly to ensure that incidents like today don’t happen again.”

I don’t think Australians think any company or service is perfect. We’re smart enough to know none are without fault. All we expect is acknowledgement of that, and for businesses to do their best to try and not let it happen again.

So the key lesson here: corporate messaging has a really important role to play in your annual corporate report. When you’re speaking to consumers in a crisis situation, be humble, be authentic, be human.

Consumers are tough critics but can appreciate that at times companies fall short and can move on quickly if humility, authenticity and action are displayed.

Damian Marwood is general manager of Herd MSL.


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