By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Two very different crises, in opposite hemispheres, have put a spotlight on how to communicate in a crisis. In a world first, it looks like the NRL has finally got it right.
Lightening lockdown this week is the infamous Paul Vaughan BBQ which saw Jack de Belin hide under a bed to evade police. Meanwhile in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught snogging his aide with a passion rarely seen on an onlyfans site.
Both men caused outrage by breaching COVID restrictions. Both men tried to hide the truth, then deny it, before finally coming clean. But what’s different is that the NRL picked the panic and nailed their statement, while the Politicians tried to spin it to a lesser crime.
Both case studies show two core truths about communicating in a crisis.
Truth #1: Expect all secrets to come out. Trying to hide the truth will prolong the media interest, amplify the outrage and maximise your reputational damage. The only option is to come clean immediately.
Truth #2: Pick the panic. Work out what the public is outraged about, name the offence and show that you get it.
During the Club’s initial investigation on Sunday morning, players corroborated and manufactured stories to protect de Belin. No doubt mindful of the added scandal given rape charges had just been dropped after a three-year legal battle.
A few hours later rumours were flying that he hid under a bed to escape police.
Then early Monday, media reported neighbours claiming they’d seen de Belin at the party – so he admitted to dropping off a case of beer and leaving. Finally he turned himself in on Monday afternoon and admitted the whole story.
I was pretty impressed with both the Club and the NRL’s response – not just the financial hit they imposed but by naming the offence. Illawarra CEO Ryan Web really nailed it with his language and specificity:
“The 13 players’ arrogance and ignorance to both the NRL biosecurity protocols and the state government’s public health order is upsetting and infuriating”.
Meanwhile in the UK, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned after being caught on camera snogging a political aide, replete with salacious buttock cupping.
Both were married with children, the advisor was an old ‘friend’ hired personally by Mr Hancock to provide a helping hand during the crisis. But it wasn’t the infidelity, family values or questionable governance which outraged the public, it was the breach of public health orders.
The first official line from Downing Street – piloted by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – spectacularly failed to pick the panic and served to amplify the outrage: “What somebody does in their private life is their private business. We’re living in the 21st century.”
The problem was trying to spin it as mere infidelity when the burning anger was the hypocrisy of flagrantly breaching strict social-distancing measures.
Boris Johnson initially resisted calls to sack Hancock, but as outrage built there was no option but to resign. Coming clean up front, and clearly addressing the public’s concerns may well have saved him.
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The key to surviving a crisis is having a well prepared crisis team and some credible spokespeople. If you’d like to know how we coach crisis skills during lockdown you can email us here