PwC failed to mop up its bat skit crazy PR disaster 

It will take more to repair PwC's damage than a simple press release, writes Pure Public Relations founder Phoebe Netto.

Last week, PwC’s PR team went into overdrive in an attempt to clean up the mess from an offensive skit by none other than its very own HR department.  

During a recent company trivia night, one executive dressed up as a ‘bat from Wuhan’ while another faked a Chinese accent. Staff were also asked to choose ‘which company represented communism’, with one answer being the Chinese tech company Huawei.  

PwC’s response to this PR firestorm has been lacklustre at best. In an initial leaked email sent to staff after the trivia night, CEO Tom Seymour said the skit caused ‘discomfort and offence’, and whilst ‘unintentional’, was ‘thoughtless and harmful.’ The story was then leaked to The Australian Financial Review and The Australian via a disgruntled employee, where Seymour made almost exactly the same statement.  

Calling the employees’ actions ‘unintentional’ is the first in a long line of wrong PR moves. The statement seriously misses the mark. Words like ‘discomfort’ don’t go far enough to describe the hurt many clients and employees – especially those of Chinese heritage – must be feeling right now. ‘Discomfort’ suggests an awkward moment or a minor stumble. ‘Appalling’, ‘abhorrent’, or ‘shameful’ might have hit the mark a little better.  

This isn’t just a story about two rogue members of staff taking it too far at trivia night – these are senior HR team members who should be responsible for setting the tone across the entire company.  

In any business, culture starts at the top. If these are the staff members that PwC employees are supposed to look up to, then this doesn’t bode well for internal culture within the rest of the business.  

The comments were not only offensive but were downright racist. Add in the fact that one of the employees was a manager of diversity and inclusion, and it all equates to some seriously worrying signs. If this is the kind of ‘joke’ that can happen during a management-approved trivia night, what could be happening on more private channels? 

Seymore claims the incident is set to be investigated by PwC’s People and Ethical Conduct Panel with an outcome expected to be reached within a week. While this is likely determined by policy and due process, this doesn’t go far enough. An ‘investigation’ suggests a slap on the wrist and not much else. While they have admitted that this investigation might result in potential disciplinary action or termination, their PR response should have led with this as the core message. They need to communicate that this is being taken seriously, and there will be consequences and action. 

A better statement would have read something like: “This behaviour is completely unacceptable, and we will be taking action. We have taken this seriously and it cannot happen again. A review is underway that will quickly determine what these consequences should be.” 

Along with the review, PwC needs an entire organisational review into racism, company culture, and employee safety. Even if it really was an isolated incident, they need to prove to their clients, employees, and the wider public that they are dedicated to putting things right. A big gesture, with follow-through, is required. 

After a year filled with tough conversations about racism, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement, our culture currently (rightfully) has zero-tolerance for racist remarks of any kind. An ‘internal investigation’ might have worked ten years ago, but the standards have changed. In most cases, immediate dismissal is the only punishment that fits in a ‘trial by employees/media/public’.  

On top of that, lockdowns and COVID-19 have severely reduced people’s appetite for forgiveness. We’re not in the mood to let things slide, and unless they take serious action, PwC is risking a massive hit to its reputation.  

The company must ensure there cannot and will not be circumstances in the future when any staff member would feel comfortable doing something like this again. They also need to give regular, detailed updates to their clients about the steps they’re taking to address the problem head-on.  

For PwC to get out of this without financial repercussions, they’ll need to implement systemic cultural change. A neat, tidy investigation followed by a webinar about diversity isn’t going to cut it.  

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations. 


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