ITL #329 Expressions of remorse: Trump, Dickson and all that’s new in PR apologies5 months, 4 weeks ago
Why are some public figures able to survive and sometimes even thrive despite repeatedly causing offence? By Gerry McCusker.
For public figures freshly outed saying; “Just grab ‘em by the pu$$y” or “Little t!t$, nothing there…” where said clips get syndicated coverage by multiple media outlets globally, well, you’re likely to have a PR disaster on your hands.
With a vigilant media and societal context, including #metoo and #timesup, the default ‘next move’ is to hatch and dispatch a glib, lip-service apology for any offence given.
Such apologies usually convince us PR watchers of one thing only; unreliable/inconsistent character. It seems implausible that someone – identified as having racist, misogynist and sexist views (sometimes all three together) – could professionally or commercially survive such outbursts. It seems incredible that we could watch footage proof of a person behaving one way, yet believe their claims that they ‘didn’t say/do it’ or that it ‘wasn’t reflective of who they were’.
Yet, as this article will suggest, there’s evidence that some can indeed survive and thrive, despite repeat PR offence given.
Over here in ethical PR-land, our consultancy is wont to challenge the person/entity to meaningfully consider and embrace any wrongdoing with a commitment to make good and behave better (but, hey, neither 'The Don' nor 'The Dick' are our clients).
In one of Australia’s freshest political PR disasters, media sting revelations about Steve Dickson (political party One Nation’s now ex-Queensland leader) were so unsavoury, that resignation was inevitable for behaviour that could only ever end in political suicide.
In an undercover media operation bankrolled by Al Jazeera, the liquored-up political leader showed a seedy side to his character when groping and grasping ‘exotic dancers’ on hidden camera. Mr Dickson’s rather inept PR response to the PR blunder similarly groped and grasped for believability given the damning footage, where his actions spoke way louder than his, rather insulting, words.
Aside from the sleazy revelations, the lame PR apology sought to explain and excuse; appeared inauthentic; echoed past revelations about underhand gun lobbying and showed an entirely selfish inability to consider the widespread hurt the behaviour could cause to other parties; personal and political.
The 3 R’s
Back to the nature of a PR apology; what should it cover; how should it be delivered?
Well, academics and scholars of PR (myself included) overwhelmingly still believe – based on chin-deep piles of research papers – that authentic and genuine expressions of remorse, responsibility plus remedial behaviour must address the wrongdoing and offence. Recently, however, we’ve encountered some clients who, despite knowing how they should behave, decide that their insurance companies and the insurer’s legal advisers will drive the PR disaster narrative; a decision based only on protecting professional insurance premiums.
That aside, a new study suggests that ‘3R’ wisdom is based on a, too old, media paradigm. More, it’s claimed there’s a new option for how to handle a modern public relations debacle.
Researchers from the Singapore Management University have uncovered some new principles to handle contemporary PR disasters in a ‘post-truth’ era. Sad to report, they appear to work well especially if you’re an egomaniacal, and possibly sociopathic/selfish, political operator.
Whether they’d work just as well for a culpable corporate, is an entirely different question. But let’s not pre-judge the research discoveries.
Analysing distasteful PR disasters initiated by state heads Donald Trump (incl Locker Room Talk) and Rodrigo Duterte (incl Missionary Worker Rape Quip), researchers Ismail, Pagulayan, Francia and Pang (Nov 2018) published “Communicating in the post‐truth era: Analyses of crisis response strategies of Presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte”, which identified some new tactical approaches to help survive negative media coverage.
Deny, lie, terrorise
By my understanding, the researchers claim ‘contradictory strategies’ served these two politicians well, as they fought-off severe reputation challenges. The kinds of contrarian methods that the researchers evidenced included:
- Machismo - boorish, uber-male behaviour and language aimed to browbeat respect and obedience from men and women
- Logorrhoea - a verbose oratorical style of excessive wordiness and repetitiveness, which may sound confusing and, even, incoherent
- Diversion - intended to deflect attention away from the principal concern or incident.
According to SMU researchers, both Mr Trump and Mr Duterte’s bellicose and blustery CRS (Crisis Response Strategies) were “…effective as evidenced by their success, proving that the public’s search for truth was overridden by emotive rhetoric that appealed to their supporters’ prejudices.”
In essence, it appears that their image and credibility were to some degree protected and bolstered simply by dint of invalidating or diminishing the evidence served up in front of them. More worryingly, such invalidating tactics seemed to convince public(s) who will discount the facts of the matter, in the face of expressive and emotive protestations.
A case, as scholars of addiction recovery would say, of personalities above principles?
Values and ethics
Forget the reality that some modern ‘leaders’ seem to have the emotional maturity of a pubescent problem-child. Others – too many others it seems – just can’t handle ‘their drink’ (which used to be a shameful character slur back in the day). As unseemly as it seems, clients facing PR disasters may have some more methodological choices available to them, according to the SMU paper cited:
- The ‘old’ PR crisis playbook insists that you face up, fess up and (for fig’s sake!) fix it properly.
- The darker new methodology studied by SMU suggests you may opt to deny, lie and terrorise (my terminology).
- I know which sits comfortably with our values and ethics, and the clients we get to advise.
Shamed Aussie ex-politician Steve Dickson’s response to manufacturing his political party’s freshest brand and media disaster seemed to fall well short by any measure; personal, professional, ethical or academic.
Gerry McCusker is Owner and Principal Advisor at The Drill Crisis Simulator.
Gerry McCusker is the author of the pop-academic text ‘Talespin: Public Relations Disasters’ (Kogan Page 2005) and the founder of crisis simulation technology The Drill. Gerry provides issues and crisis management advice and industry insights to ‘tough-to-love’ brands via regular contributions to industry association events plus conferences and seminars in Australia and overseas. Recent client crisis simulations have supported the work of key players in the agri, food, healthcare, infrastructure, oil and gas, plus utility sectors. NB: An expanded whitepaper version of this essay is avaliable on request.mail the author
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