Yeah, nah: Scott Morrison’s PR tries but fails to hide climate denial and inaction

Our climate-denying PM, politicians and journalists have learnt the wrong lessons from PR during this bushfire crisis. Belinda Noble and Annabelle Lukin explain why following a tried and tested PR plan instead of resorting to spin would have been a far better approach for Scott Morrison.

There are three, accepted golden rules when it comes to dealing with a reputational crisis: apologise a lot, make your statements about the victims, and outline your steps to ensure the mistake never happens again.

Being in an unknown overseas country while people were dying in the flames and then failing to acknowledge the extent of the bushfire crisis seriously damaged Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s standing. Since that initial outrage, he’s ‘pivoted’, acknowledging climate change exists, recognising the plight of victims and announcing measures to deal with the immediate emergency.

Unfortunately, every word, gesture, and intonation in his press conferences and interviews is still refracted through his climate denialism. No admission, therefore no apology. No reflection on past mistakes. No future plans. No way to make things right.  From this position, there is no PR or spin that can get him to where the public needs him to be.

Scott Marsh’s mural ‘Merry Crisis’ in response to the PM’s Hawaiian holiday

Disaster? What Disaster?

The most obvious sign of Morrison’s communications failure was his inability to acknowledge the scale and significance of Australia’s bushfires. It’s hard to reduce an issue the size of a European country, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.

‘Unprecedented’ is the word Australians wanted to hear – these fires and this catastrophe are unprecedented.

Morrison was neither willing nor able to use this word in relation to the fires.  Instead he has applied it to himself and to his processes: “unprecedented deployment of the ADF”, “unprecedented funding”, “unprecedented role for the PM and the Government”.

In his denial of the extent of this crisis, Morrison has made his communications about himself. To the public, he still sounds like he did at the start. ‘What? It wasn’t me. I am not to blame. I wasn’t there. We were already doing everything we should have been doing.’

He has yet to move beyond this defensive position. The public don’t buy his spin, and consequently he is still fighting to convince the public that he is with them in this crisis.

Admission reduction not emission reduction

The Prime Minister has failed to contain the reputational damage so far, and he is now desperately trying to change tack, all while staying away from the key issue of a proper policy on climate change.

Australia needs to, kind of, do something, Morrison says, like “continue to begin to start to roll out initiatives” and “to continue to evolve our policy”.

But when repeatedly asked by David Speers on ABC’s Insiders whether he would actually reduce emissions, the Prime Minister answered with a misleading slogan that we would “meet and beat” our Paris targets in a “balanced” way.

Social Services Minister, Anne Rushton, side-stepped emissions reduction altogether. “I think we need to be addressing the real issues about how we mitigate against climate change and how we build resilience into our community,” she told the ABC.

The PR strategy is now to call for balance and to be measured.

As Australians face unprecedented – yes unprecedented – damage to our economy and ecology, and we witness the full force of the reality of climate change, words like “balance” are manifestly inadequate.

The strategy is admission reduction, while avoiding discussion of emissions reduction.

Complaining is unAustralian

Calling for people to shoosh up in the name of national unity has the added benefit of closing down any pesky questions such as, “What warnings did you receive before the bushfires?” and “Why didn’t you take the threats of climate change seriously?”

Energy Minister Angus Taylor patronises us and rewrites history in his letter to The Australian claiming our climate change efforts have been dinky-di: “Most Australians are proud of their country, and rightly so. Shrill cries that we should be ‘ashamed to be Australian’ do not ring true with the quiet Australians.”

The Australian also attempts to shut down outraged “elites” with: “We should not allow noise to deafen us to this opportunity for a serious conversation.”

The big lie

The big lie, perpetuated since the campaign against Kevin Rudd’s mining tax, is that transitioning to clean power and away from coal will cost the economy and our hip pockets. Most experts in the area, including Professor Ross Garnaut who predicted the bushfire crisis, argue the opposite. Failing to transition out of fossil fuels will cost us much more.

Scott Morrison declared, “I’m not going to put someone’s job at risk, a region’s, town’s future at risk, I’m not going to put up electricity prices to do it [reduce emissions], I’m not going to put a tax on them to do it.”

The Australian, apparently now the mouthpiece of the common man, said “The mainstream are worried about warming but they expect a prudent response alert to an inequitable burden of costs”.

Face facts

The unpopular truth about PR is that you’re only going to have a good reputation if your actions are truthful and ethical. You can’t spin your way out of trouble. And when you make mistakes that cost lives or livelihoods, you need to come clean.

Having been dragged back from Hawaii, Morrison had the perfect opportunity to use this tried and tested PR plan to re-position and lead from the front.

It is astonishing that instead of using this moment to show public humility, every PR trick he has tried has made his situation worse, and further removed him from the Australian public.

Quiet Australians are still waiting for their apology.

Belinda Noble (top) is the founder of BeNoble, a strategic communications agency, and founder of Comms4Climate. Annabelle Lukin (bottom) is an associate professor at Macquarie University’s department of linguistics


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