By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Photographer Steven Saphore’s iconic Horse Puncher is the image which defined Sydney’s chaotic ‘protest’ this week. News stories are, at their core, always about Heroes and Villains – and this single image cast the police as the Heroes and the others as Rabble Scum.
Before you start with the trolling, this is a blog about a crisis, how it was managed and what we can learn from it. Not about the rights and wrongs of lockdown.
For me the biggest insight from the media coverage is the power of a defining image, how you can maximise it, and the battle that was waged to discredit it.
It’s a generally accepted principle of Crisis Comms that you need to establish yourself as the most reliable source of accurate information. But the reason is rarely talked about. Put simply, in a reputational battle, when your very existence is at stake, you are fighting to ensure your truth cuts through, your voice is heard and the story is told from your perspective.
Saphore’s shot was an amazing gift for the police. And they milked it for all it was worth. The image won over public opinion and let police set the news agenda for the next 24 hours.
In time for the evening news we had an update on how Tobruk (the horse) was doing. Breakfast brought the arrest of the miscreant, then in the afternoon police released footage of the gifts the public were showering on Tobruk and his companions (liquorice, apples and carrots). Police media realised the story had run its course when they issued an update the next day which only got coverage on the socials, so they dropped it. Police media played their hand brilliantly and had a clear win in the court of public opinion.
It took about 14 hours for the ‘punch deniers’ to emerge, desperately trying to undermine the power of the image and win back Hero status, or at least cast shade on the police.
Naturally Alan Jones led the charge and it’s a fascinating testament to Social Media that woke keyboard warriors swallowed a line – I’m guessing from the protest organisers – warning us not to rush to judgement because the video tells a different story. You can watch him here.
The video doesn’t by the way, it tells the same story as the still. I’ve watched two hours of chopper footage and pulled out the relevant 30 seconds – he punches the rump, then a right hook to the snout AND a left hook to the other side of the snout. There’s no audio but you can watch it here.
Punch deniers argue it wasn’t a punch: “… the guy was startled by the horse … the raised arm you see was a gentle but effective touch to steer the horses head out of the way [sic]”.
So basically the horse puncher was completely innocent. I love the terminology “gentle but effective touch” which brazenly ignores the closed fist and multiple, opposing hits. At least they stopped short of adding “And the horse was asking for it”.
The line was clearly a complete and utter fabrication, worthy of Trump himself. What I found so amazing was that it worked and people bought it.
So, when you’re managing your crisis remember:
Want to know if you or your spokespeople are up to the challenge? Email me to discuss our crisis exercises, simulations and spokesperson coaching programs all done from the safety of your computer.
For a change of pace, three blogs on what not to do:
When white washing doesn’t work
When you’ve got the right spokesperson who’s poorly briefed
When you’ve got an untrained spokesperson