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How prank call DJs played it by the book in TV tell-alls

The radio DJs behind the royal prank call fronted TV cameras last night for tell-not-quite-all interviews. They played it by the book of crisis management, says marketing consultant Toby Ralph.

It was the worst phone call I’ve ever had in my life,” sobbed globally disgraced DJ Mel Greig to Tracy Grimshaw and the viewers of A Current Affair, explaining how she first heard of the heart-rending suicide of a nurse. Tragically, the dead carer in question, Jacintha Saldanha, had endured a worse call courtesy of Greig and her co-host Michael Christian.

Pranks are, of course, standard fare for media around the world. A faux Prince Charles wanted to book a room for his horse, and we sniggered as the hotel accommodated the request in an on-air orgy of obsequiousness; Panorama reported a bumper crop for Swiss spaghetti farmers; New Mexicans for Science and Reason claimed the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.

But a death is altogether more serious. Giggles transmute to gravitas.

With less solemn consequences such brouhaha is coveted, based on the long-standing principle that “all ink is good ink”. Radio announcers, especially commercial FM announcers, crave one thing besides a microphone to build their career: the attention of other media. It’s the shockingly open yet undisclosed secret most announcers practise, and the rest of the media is too distracted to comprehend.

It’s why shock jocks shock. Not because they get a perverse thrill out of being gratuitous and nasty for its own sake. It’s a marketing and advertising strategy — basically, getting it for free. Who needs to pay some PR hack to tell the world what a bastard you are when A Current Affair or Today Tonight, or Today or Sunrise, will do it for you?

Last night Mel and Michael were paragons of contrition. They are doubtless gripped by genuine grief, but their lines, however sincere, appeared suspiciously scripted, and sat easily within proven frameworks for outrage reduction. The commandments for such situations are simple:

  • Acknowledge the mistake
  • Apologise and look like you mean it
  • Recontextualise your behaviour — make it seem normal and own the middle ground
  • Don’t pass the buck to co-workers
  • The media can only report what you say – don’t stray off message
  • Express hopes and wishes
  • Offer a practical way forward.

Their responses, however genuine, were textbook crisis management …

1. Acknowledge the mistake

… obviously, you know, we’re incredibly sorry for the harm that we may have helped contribute [to].”

2. Apologise and look like you mean it

If we played any involvement in her death then we’re very sorry for that. And time will only tell.”

[Crying] There’s nothing that can make me feel worse than what I feel right now. And for what I feel for the family. We’re so sorry that this has happened to them.”

I’m just so devastated for them. I’m really feeling for them.”

Gutted. Shattered. Heartbroken.”

3. Recontextualise your behaviour — make it seem normal and own the middle ground

It was, they repeatedly asserted, an innocent everyday prank that went wrong. Such things are done hundreds of times every day across the industry:

These are prank calls. They’ve been around for as long as radio’s existed and they’re done by every radio station.”

The intended gag, such as it was, was apparently that their preposterous accents would cause the hospital to hang up, but to their amazement they got through. This, of course, neglects the considerable chutzpah it would take a nurse in a royal hospital to tell someone claiming to be the Queen to bugger off.

You know it was never meant to go that far. It was meant to be a silly little prank that so many people have done before.”

This wasn’t meant to happen.”

4. Don’t pass the buck to co-workers

They were steadfast in their protection of fellow workers and management. When questioned about who approved airing the pre-recorded segment the answer was:

There’s a process in place — it was out of our hands.”

When pressed about this “process” and the people involved — producer, lawyers, management — they studiously avoided names.

People above us. We’re not privy to what happens.”

When asked if they considered identifying themselves at the end of that call:

That’s where the process comes in. We just record everything and pass it to the team. That’s what we do.”

When asked who rang them to break the news of the suicide:

I don’t know … a group of people.”

5. The media can only report what you say — don’t stray off message

Their simple responses were repeated ad nauseum. Their answers were bawled with a consistency that would shame a process worker and no enquiry beyond them was entertained. This smacks of formal media training. While their angst may be honest their contained response appeared disingenuous.

6. Express hopes and wishes

I think that, you know, what’s important right now is, you know, that the family of Jacintha are getting the support and the love that they deserve. And I mean that’s what’s important here.”

The focus should be on the family and the other nurse.”

7. Offer a practical way forward

Prank calls have now been suspended from all Southern Cross Austereo shows.

There were three points at which the station could have thought the better of this disaster — the idea, the execution, the airing. Nobody involved was sensible enough to fix it.

The tasteless antic of the naïve duo and the sanction of it by their management is another arrow in the quiver for advocates of further media regulation. This sorry tale of an unfunny, ill-considered prank call and the consequent unimagined tragedy may well become the rallying call for further restrictions to freedom of speech. The price of a largely unregulated media is a media out of control; conversely the price of a state-controlled fourth estate is one that’s scared of the very government it must hold to account.

And that’s no laughing matter.

*Toby Ralph is a marketer and crisis management consultant who has worked for the Liberal Party, British American Tobacco and the live cattle export industry. Earlier this year The Power Index named him one of Australia’s most influential spinners and advisers.

*If you are in need of help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

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  • 1
    Peter Shute
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I doubt anyone in the media will call for more controls. It’s a win win type tale for our tabloid type MSM.

    It does reinforce Lord leveson’s recommendation which is one we in Australia should have yet probably won’t : a tribunal that can be accessed by the ordinary punter to resolve matters of libel etc to avoid courts and if the MSM ignores it, they face stiff fines.

    But as usual media owners and their handmaidens (pundits)in the media will scream this must not lead to muzzling our press, freedom of speech etc!!..and avoid the fact that an entity like Austereo is beholden to taxpayers only and Max Moore Wilton and his yearly $250K fee for bringing us this trash.

  • 2
    Peter Shute
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    that was shareholders not taxpayers.

    The media is never beholden to taxpayers, just it’s owners but still tries to convince taxpayers it is a public service.

  • 3
    drsmithy
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    There were three points at which the station could have thought the better of this disaster — the idea, the execution, the airing. Nobody involved was sensible enough to fix it.

    Right up until someone died, there was nothing particularly irregular, unusual, shocking, offensive or risky about this specific crank call.

    The argument that just being “sensible” could have “fixed it” is being made on the basis of hindsight, nothing else.

    Prank calls have now been suspended from all Southern Cross Austereo shows.

    Quite possibly the only positive outcome of this entire debacle.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    We’re not privy to what happens (upstairs)”?
    Another of those “curiosity by-passes”?

  • 5
    SusieQ
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    The two of them had certainly been well coached (acknowledging their obvious distress).

    These commercial radio stations are beholden to ratings only - while idiots still listen to their dumber than dumb programs, this sort of stuff is bound to keep happening.

  • 6
    Patricia Rego
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    It seems passing strange to me that so little has been said about the gross breach of privacy involved in the broadcasting of this prank. That is the real issue, since it is difficult to see how a minor part in what happened could have entirely precipitated the tragic outcome.

  • 7
    IC-1101
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Since when did “public service” lie solely in the hands of the state? The private sector can’t offer a public service?

  • 8
    mary kershaw
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Everyone seems to be missing the point about this issue. These young DJ’s may have been silly but let’s put this into perspective. The hospital concerned should not have divulged patient information no matter who asks for it.
    This hospital is used to having VIP patients and should have policies and procedures in place to ensure the absolute security of all patient information and on how to handle calls about these VIP patients. All staff in the hospital should be fully trained in these policies and procedures. It is very easy for the hospital board to blame these DJs when they should be facing the blowtorch at themselves. This is a private hospital that has just very publicly breached the overriding tenet of patient confidentiality. It would be looking at losing patients and therefore income because of this. Reaction - blame someone else!
    The apparent suicide if one of the nurses is a tragic situation but the cause/reasons should be left to the inquest. Did not the hospital have a duty of care to a staff memebr caught up in the media storm that followed this ‘prank’.

  • 9
    Gratton Wilson
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Point 1. That the radio station tried numerous times to contact Jacinta to obtain her consent to broadcast demonstrates that they were aware that broadcasting the tape without her consent was breaking the law.
    Point 2. That the hospital was using nurses to answer switchboard calls demonstrates that they had cut trained support staff and were using nurses to fill positions for which they had not been trained.
    When politicians cut non-front-line staff in hospitals and schools it means that front line staff have to make up the deficiency - doing work that they don’t like and for which they have not been trained. Everybody loses.

  • 10
    Marr Greg
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a very accurate article that I think sums up the two interviews really well. However one important caveat is the need to see beyond the spin and media training. At the centre of all this are two young people who are hurting very badly. It’s time the cross hairs be pointed at Austereo management and equally, the management of the hospital as I believe there is a yet untold story there.

  • 11
    Kevin Tyerman
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    On the 30th of November Crikey ran an article asking lawyer’s for their opinion of how she had acted 20 years ago in her role as a lawyer in what has now become known as the AWU Scandal.

    A quote that sticks with me related to the fact that what she did was not best practice but was common place for how lawyers act:
    “There is a difference between best practice and normal practice, in reality.”

    I can’t help feeling that there is a hipocrasy of the same level in the reaction to this particular prank call. Mr Ralph states above:
    “There were three points at which the station could have thought the better of this disaster — the idea, the execution, the airing. Nobody involved was sensible enough to fix it.”
    While this is true, it applies equally to almost every other prank call aired on radio or television over many years. The problem is that it has become “normal practise” to execute and air these types of calls, and because of that there was no reason for anyone being “sensible enough to fix it” until either this type of outcome occurred or new management of the radio station decided it no longer found this type of practise acceptable.

    To me, anyone who found the practice of airing prank phone calls acceptable a week ago, is only being a hypocrite to be outraged now that one has gone seriously wrong, and appears to have directly contributed to a tragic death. If Crikey’s suggestion in yesterday’s editorial that regulations or laws have been broken by airing the segment without full permission of those whose voices were recorded, then every prank call that has ever been put to air in Australia needs to be reviewed on the same basis, and the same legal punishment needs to be given to every broadcaster that has violated the same rules or regulations.

    While the outcome of this particular call far outweighs any other, prior to this outcome, it was exactly the same as the many others that preceeded it, and were put to air by any broadcaster either live to air, or without seeking permission from the person(s) at the other end of the line.

    I can not help feeling that there is a great degree of hipocrasy in the reaction to this particular stunt, other than by anyone who has been previously lobbying for these types of prank calls to stopped.

  • 12
    James Butler
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    The fact that they aired it without consent from the hospital or the nurses, is a serious violation of Media laws. Using this, if the nurse’s family are serious about taking this station down, they should sue the station for that breach which will guarantee them victory.

    The Australian Media (as usual) is very protective of bullies unfortunately , always trying to justify any wrongs a bully or criminal may have done.

  • 13
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    What were they doing recording the phone conversations without permission ? Edward James

  • 14
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    And the listening public, who happily expose themselves to the advertising which funds all this, are somehow “innocent bystanders”?
    Given the projected support by Sydneysiders for the execrable Abbott, can we punish this idiocy by removing their right to vote?
    If they are going to display all the intelligence of Leunig’s Indian runner ducks then shouldn’t they be treated accordingly?
    Owing more than three hundred thoudand dollars on a home mortgage should also, by law, lead to the forfeiture of the right to vote or, indeed, be voted for.
    Then the braindead Sydney trash who have delivered us this tragedy can wallow in their stinking slime, quarantined from any effect on the rest of the nation, (presently held hostage, as the polls tell us, to this, as Abbott would call it, Western Sydney “Crap”, dressed up as entertainment).

  • 15
    con hatzi
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Pathetic….to all you free speech screeching monkeys…..tell the nurses children why their mother felt she had no choice

  • 16
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m a regular Triple J listener. A few days ago the morning show was doing an apocalypse program because, remember, the world was about to end at 9am (nudge, nudge, put your disbelief away, get over it). At some point, and I can’t remember even if it was the evening before, I heard PM Julia Gillard on the line playing along with the ‘end times’ theme and generally having a few laughs. I enjoyed the format, thought it was a bit of a coup for the “DJ”s and wondered who thinks up these gags and situations which seem a common theme of every single radio station I have ever heard - including occasionally, something as ‘serious’ as Radio National.
    The last couple of days and reading some of the pompous legalistic crap coming out in print, you’d think the end times really did come last Friday, or was it Wednesday?

  • 17
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    With Max Moore Wilton in charge what do you expect from a radio station, he learnt the fine art of bullshit, stunts and spin working with Howard.

    Remember kids overboard when he argued with Chris Barrie that they should not allow the 438 AFghans and others to be rescued?

    He is still Max the Axe as far as I can see, no remorse, no brains, no skill.

  • 18
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Funny how it was deemed reasonable for Sarah Ferguson to use illegally obtained tapes and interviews of innocent people in Indonesia to claim that tortured refugees were criminals.

  • 19
    Stephen
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    The death of the nurse is tragic, but I hope that democratic Australians continue to offer the odious royals a robust bollocking.

    Despite Gillard’s recent grovelling to Charles, they have no place in the modern independent nation that Australia ought to be.

    And, as Moir pointed out in today’s SMH cartoon, the British media jackals are rather poorly placed to be criticising their counterparts in the Australian colonies.

  • 20
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Surveillance Devices Act has finally been mentioned elsewhere. It seem these so called prank calls may come to a full stop! 7.10 Edward James

  • 21
    Phil L
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    What’s the legal position on airing a taped conversation of a person without their permission (is it black and white on this issue)?

    Is there exceptions e.g if you try a number of times but fail its ok?

    What other possible legal arguments are there for airing the tape?

  • 22
    Dragana Brown
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Even though I have not seen the pair being interviewed it was very easy to predict that their expression would be heavily scripted and not from the heart, because no true remorse can be felt in them - only concern for their positions!! Although the author outlines this nicely, even he makes a huge mistake at the end. He says: “This sorry tale of an unfunny, ill-considered prank call and the consequent unimagined tragedy may well become the rallying call for further restrictions to freedom of speech.” He places prank phone calls in the same bucket with freedom of speech. This is NOT so!. The ones who want restrictions, it is to STOP freedom to ABUSE and not freedom to speak - nobody should take away our freedom to express but there is a light year difference between the two! Prank phone calls and practical jokes are nothing but euphemisms for bullying, because the purpose of these pranks is to amuse one group of people at the expense of somebody, by publicly humiliating that person/persons.We should not be allowing humiliation of another human being EVER. This is what must end.

  • 23
    POV 888
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Valid points Toby.

    In the ACA interview, Tracy Grimshaw could have gone harder at the interviewees but didn’t, she showed restraint for the right reasons.
    I feel the interview was successful, in that it shifted the public’s focus to relevant decision makers higher up the food chain.
    The use of two human shields while in damage control was futile and serves to exemplify more unethical characteristics exhibited by the stations management team.

  • 24
    Moira Smith
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    The ‘bumper spaghetti crop’ was not a ‘prank’ and did not involve any people or any private information. It was an April Fool’s day spoof news report aired on British TV about 40 years ago! Really no similarity to the current situation.

  • 25
    D K
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    who pranks a hospital just because a pregnant woman is having difficulties, royal or otherwise and the assumption that hundreds of other morons would have tried already is pretty damning on the mean spirited shock jock culture at 2day fm…

  • 26
    D K
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    can understand why Stephen wants the royals out of Oz but they’re far from odious, they do a great deal to bring the tourist pound to the uk far outweighing the cash they are granted from the public purse, federation anyone…?

  • 27
    Patriot
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve no sympathy for these rude, crude, childish attention-seekers. Invading the privacy of a pregnant woman while she’s hospitalised with complications was a vile stunt to begin with. They thoroughly deserved to be hounded off the air and to get the serve they did from the public.

  • 28
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Catherine is a dreadful royal though and the nurses sure were not.

  • 29
    Tim nash
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    The truth is prank calls are a very bad form of entertainment. They take advantage of innocent people in the worst way, it’s a form of bullying and harassment How did this become normal practice for a radio station in the first place?

  • 30
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    There is only one royal and that is the monarch. The rest are in another category. All of them.

  • 31
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    I would be very interested to know just what the two nurses faced from hospital management in the fallout from the hoax call in the first instance. The hospital management have been very coy in their public statements but I suspect that both nurses were facing significant disciplinary action over this and may well have been staring at the prospect of dismissal. No one has mentioned the second nurse, the one who did divulge the information about the Duchess. Where is she in all of this? Is she okay? Is she receiving support at all?

  • 32
    M P Casey
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    I know the hospital authorities chewed the nurse out even though they denied doing so. The hospital is at fault here. They should have had protocols in place to ensure patient privacy and not reprimanded the nurse for their own shortcomings. The hospital is to blame and nobody else.

  • 33
    Nigel Parry
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    People don’t kill themselves because they forwarded a prank phone call. They kill themselves because they are deeply depressed and feel as if the pressure is too much to bear. The nurse clearly had serious mental problems long before the call was even made. Blaming the suicide on the DJs is to view the event myopically, is completely inappropriate, and a far worse offense than anything they did.

  • 34
    annabelle.lukin
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    A bit ironic to get moralizing from someone who has been a spin doctor for the tobacco industry.

  • 35
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    The only person to blame in this instance is the person who committed suicide. It’s a terrible tragedy that needs to be explained in full. British Labour MP Keith Vaz said: “We need to know the facts, fully and clearly. There are unexplained circumstances. The family were in the dark.” The hospital has been very coy about the whole thing, why was she answering the phone in the first place? What has become of the nurse that actually divulged the information about the Kate’s health? Was there the threat of dismissal because of the call getting through? The few moments of humiliation following the call won’t compare to the suffering this woman has caused her children, her husband, her family, the radio DJs and their family. Not to mention the inevitable slew of censorship laws that will come in the aftermath. I hope the lynch mob remember that lives and careers are ruined due to this woman’s selfish act.

  • 36
    Groucho
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who convinces themselves this was unforeseeable is deluding themselves. 2dayfm had licence restrictions imposed especially for this reason. They had previously put a 14 yo girl is harms way and used the same excuses. ie “How were we to know she’d been raped?”. As if putting a teenager on a lie detector in public and a middle aged man grilling her about her sexual experiences was normal. The outcome in the UK was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.

    At some point it should have been obvious to anyone that at the very least the livelihoods of these two nurses were on the line. It is not outside realms of imagining that that alone could and would lead to harm.

    Even before the tragic suicide this vapid pair showed callous disregard for the welfare of all involved.

  • 37
    adams jodi
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Was disgusted that Adam Spencer at ABC 702 - who acts more like a commercial DJ every day - chose to repeatedly play the 2Day prank item presumably in the “public interest” of listeners (thank god for Linda Mottram who didn’t!)

    I mentioned on ABC the other morning that those of us with long memories might remember another great moment in Australian media involving a hospital and a seriously ill woman, this one in 1969.

    A newspaper photographer disguised himself as a doctor to photograph the then-comatose Marianne Faithfull in a Sydney hospital after she’d attempted suicide. The pic ran on the front page of a Murdoch paper (big surprise) and temporarily generated heat re ethics but not for long.

    This was just before my time in newspapers, but I do remember when there WERE industry codes of ethics - AJA (now MEAAA) members were meant to adhere to them but rarely did. Union management also seemed to find it funny when myself and a group of other members raised the issue of the industry’s continual slide in the public’s viewpoint (we rated above politicians but below used car salesmen!)

    Now journalists and “entertainers” (which is how John Laws defined himself during the cash for comment scandal) are lumped together in the same union, and calls go out(again)for enforceable codes of ethics and a press council with teeth. Am not holding my breath.

    Methinks the pigs that might fly will be sharing the air(waves) with flocks of chickens coming home to roost!

    Jodi Adams

  • 38
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    @Nigel Parry - from what realm of enlightenment do you presume to kniw the mental health history of the nurse and thus make judgements on her act if suicide. It us highly likely that this nurse, as well as her colleague - Who, I might add, nobody is talking about - had been threatened with significant disciplinary action, possible criminal actionand almost certainly dismissal by the Hospital. Having been a nurse for over 15 yearsand having worked with many Indian Nurses, I can attest to their dedication as health professionals and the importance they place on their role as a Nurse. There is no doubt in my.mind that - had the hospital taken the action I suspect - the devastation that Nurse would have felt was overwhelming. When you are staring at the prospect of your life being destroyed, your career being destroyed, sometimes that is all it takes. Everyone gas their shatter points Nigel - Everyone. You would do well to remember that my friend.

  • 39
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    and apologies in advance for my appalling grammar on that previous post. Smartphones are perilous at best

  • 40
    Carbon Footprint
    Posted Thursday, 13 December 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Its an invasion of privacy to divulge patient details to anybody not connected to the patient and their family. Medical information is supposed to be confidential.

    Surely therefore its illegal to obtain this information by deception let alone to broadcast it to the world. You’d think the DJ’s would understand that?

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