In its latest PR disaster, Harvey Norman has set itself up for failure

Phoebe Netto of Pure Public Relations looks at the latest self-inflicted saga to emerge from the Harvey Norman brand.

This article discusses mental health issues and suicide. If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636. In an emergency, call 000.

Furniture and electricals giant Harvey Norman is caught in the middle of a PR firestorm after it appeared to mock an ex-employee’s claim that the business drove them to consider suicide.

A tweet from user @sisyphysical read: “Lol @harveynormanau blocking people for talking about the wage strikes. Working for your godforsaken company drove me to suicide in six months. To the 50 people paid $200k a year to manage to one account – go f*ck yourselves. I know you do, that Sydney conference is a f*ucking mess.”

The Harvey Norman account left two emojis in response: “🤦‍♂️👋”.

It then followed this up by responding to another outraged Twitter user by using the kissing emoji.

Predictability, the outcry was swift. One Twitter user exclaimed: “This is the most revolting irresponsible response to a tweet containing sensitive health information I’ve seen from a corporate entity.”

Harvey Norman has already been subject to a lot of negative media attention after its founder, Gerry Harvey, revealed the business would not return $14.5 million in taxpayer-paid JobKeeper funds, despite company profits increasing by 116% during the pandemic. The news triggered staff protests, which erupted outside Harvey Norman stores across the country as disgruntled employees demanded wage increases in line with the company’s record-breaking profit increase during the pandemic.

With this story burning in the background, the business has set itself up for failure, resulting in an automatic presumption of guilt. If it is willing to remain silent and indigent over wages and taxpayer funds, why think twice that it is aware of and responsible for these incredibly irresponsible, tone-deaf and insensitive tweets? Even before the original JobKeeper story erupted, the business should have better prepared itself for a crisis with several holding statements and a solid social media plan in place.

A holding statement is a pre-prepared statement that businesses prepare ahead of time and hold on to until they need it. They should be flexible enough to be adapted to the specific conditions of the hypothetical situation if it does occur. All messaging should be designed to reassure staff, customers, and stakeholders and emphasise calm. From the deafening silence, it’s safe to assume that Harvey Norman doesn’t have any kind of statement in place.

Likewise, from a social media point of view, the company has set itself up for failure. In its bio, the Harvey Norman Twitter account claims ‘Twitter is no longer a customer service channel and is unmanned’ –  despite the fact that people who have openly criticised Harvey Norman on Twitter continue to be blocked by the account. If the Twitter account is ‘unmanned’, how did it manage to send the irresponsible reply, and block so many Twitter users?

If Twitter is no longer going to act as a service channel for the business, why keep the account open at all? And why continue to use a cover image of two people who look very much like customer service representatives, beneath a slogan bearing the words ‘we’re here to help’?

Even if the Twitter account has been hacked, Harvey Norman’s subsequent media response has still been utterly lacking. The original tweet response was posted on the 28th May, and days later, there’s still been no response or explanation. The business also has a Facebook account, which is similarly blank. If you can’t respond quickly, you have no business holding social media accounts.

This isn’t a mere storm in a teacup. The bad taste left in customer’s mouths will only get sourer as more and more government representatives and stakeholders feel compelled to condemn Harvey Norman’s actions. As with any PR firestorm, once the blaze gets out of control, it’s almost impossible to extinguish.

The furniture and tech market is incredibly crowded. Being a long-standing brand, or having competitive prices are no longer enough to create a preference for Harvey Norman’s brand. Goodwill, perception, and reputation are incredibly important. And let’s not forget that ‘cancel culture’ is now not considered a new idea – it is alive and well.

Comms is about more than putting a positive spin on things. It involves both internal and external communications and ensuring that all layers of a business are communicating well with one another. If a business doesn’t have a good relationship with its employees, that negativity will ultimately rub off on customers and affect sales – especially in a customer-facing retail business.

It doesn’t really make a difference whether the account had been hacked or if the response was real. No matter what happened, silence is not an option. When a business is silent in the days following a crisis, people will always fill that silence with negative implications, assumptions or even inaccurate assertions.

By apologising and explaining immediately, Harvey Norman would have put itself in a better position to take control of the situation. Silence is a lot harder to forgive, especially when you’re already in hot water.

Harvey Norman could take this drama as an opportunity to apologise, show some empathy, and acknowledge people’s feelings. The moves it makes over the next couple of days could spell a lot of disruption for the brand, the teams it sponsors, and brands it associates with. Watch this space.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.

If you or someone close to you requires personal assistance, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.