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TV & Radio

Dec 11, 2012

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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40 comments

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40 thoughts on “How prank call DJs played it by the book in TV tell-alls

  1. Peter Shute

    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

    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

    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

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

  5. SusieQ

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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