Robodebt and media strategy myopia

In the wake of the Robodebt media debacle, The Drill's Gerry McCusker unpacks what does - and what doesn't - constitute ethical and professional PR practice.

A claimed successful media crisis strategy for the flawed Robodebt scheme, culminated with its architects grilled at a Royal Commission and helped curtail the political career of the scheme’s sentinel, Alan Tudge. Before that, the impact of Robodebt was linked to multiple suicides. With the scandal and recent hearings bringing the political obsession with media crisis management into public focus, the short-sightedness of thinking press relations is the be-all and end-all, has swung firmly into view.

In giving evidence to a Royal Commission, senior media adviser Rachelle Miller accidentally compounded the image problems of PRs all over Australia with candid revelations about the cynical, tit-for-tat nature of what’s erroneously presumed to pass for peak PR practice in Australia.

For if you ask any Joe or Joelene in the street what PR – or what ‘a PR’ – is, they’ll suggest it’s media relations or spin doctoring: Which is false! True public relations is – as peak body PRIA writes – ‘the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.’

August PR and George Santos’ resume
Seeing ‘PR’ as simply a press relations tactic overlooks consideration of the wider ‘stakeholder engagement’ aim of true PR practitioners. The latter design programmes that listen well, consider carefully, engage appropriately and ethically and, therefore, seek to build ongoing trust. In practice, it takes the longer-term view rather than one hunting retaliatory hits in media skirmishes. Media manipulations to quell what are misnomered as ‘PR crises’ are about as far from august PR practice as George Santos’ resume is from being accurate and honest.

Press relations can be important but it’s just one tactic in a bigger PR quiver, especially today when news media’s credibility and trust are both falling dramatically. When the main focus is only ‘the media’, then other stakeholders acutely affected by what actions any organisation is taking may be more than disengaged or disenchanted; they can become the activists whose raw experiences could eventually bring you to book. And so it transpired with Robodebt.

Media Strategy Myopia
I used ‘media strategy myopia’ in my headline because over the long term, we learned of data leaks, departmental duping, ministerial miscalculation, citizenry fraud and deaths and reputation besmirching – topped off with a Ministerial resignation. The media relations efforts saw the leaking of vulnerable peoples’ personal details to press outlets; a nigh-data privacy breaching practice that’s been widely condemned.

Surely the myopia of such tactics have now become blindingly obvious, as of Feb 2023? This media myopia does not – with hindsight – equate to a smart and safe strategy: Unless the strategy’s aim was to eventually sully the names of all parties to the plan. Strategy, remember, commonly aims to move us from today’s ‘meh’ position to a ‘yay’ position tomorrow.

When any business or department buys into the insanity of short-termism and day-to-day headline chasing, then maybe the odd win of micro-media manipulation seems like success. But press relations ‘hit jobs’ don’t make for ethical and sustainable Public Relations practice, which should always be guided by sound values and by any of the PR industry’s peak body codes of ethical practice, which exist to help foster ethical practice plus long-term rapport and trust.

Of course, many governments and corporations have sage media advisers strongly advising their bosses and peers that some approaches and tactics are unprincipled and will not be pursued. These types of ‘PRs’ are no soft touches – even for their more pushy peers – for they can differentiate short-term gain from long-term pain.

CIPR 75th Anniversary

The ‘media comms’ element of this debacle coincides with the UK’s Chartered Institute for Public Relations celebration of the public relations profession and its wider contribution to society over the past 75 years of practice. That success comprises essential, enduring and valuable strategies where citizen safety, population education and stakeholder consultation and welfare have been the avowed strategic objectives of campaigns undertaken. But you won’t read much about that type of PR in the columns of national news media. Instead, you’ll more likely find prattle about PR players consumed with press politicking.

A 2021 University of Canberra News and Media Research Centre survey showed respondents expressing strong preferences for impartial, balanced and non-partisan news. Yet opinion-fuelled and ‘right wing versus left wing’ media titles are variously vying for eyeballs with gossip, tawdry tidbits and settling petty political scores, all while their readership figures and trust levels wither and wane.

Puzzlingly after 70-plus years, many of the PR industry’s peak bodies still struggle to proactively communicate – or correct misunderstandings about – what constitutes ethical and professional PR practice (of which media relations can be a valued component). All too often confused with ‘Press Relations’, the Public Relations profession’s integrity and value remains both misunderstood and undersold.

And of course, when the public reads of and sees a senior media adviser at the heart of any organisational debacle or PR disaster, the wider PR profession’s credibility takes another hit.

Perhaps they just need a short-term media crisis strategy. Nah, maybe not.

Gerry McCusker is a crisis management adviser at The Drill and author of ‘Public Relations Disasters’.


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