Fires ravaging Victoria and South Australia, the release of “our Schapelle”, a royal commission, and then Toyota bolting for the exits. If there was ever a day to try and dump bad news, Monday was it.
But if that was what David Jones was attempting, it didn’t quite work. The retailer waited until Monday night to reveal that its chairman and two directors were resigning following a corporate governance scandal (the official line was “board renewal”). But even on the biggest of news days, it got covered — barely on television, but it made the front pages of both The Australian Financial Review and The Australian, and got plenty of coverage in the business sections of the News Corp tabloids and the other Fairfax papers. It made the pages of the hallowed Financial Times.
So does “taking out the trash” — that is, attempting to hide bad news by releasing it at a time when journalists and readers aren’t paying attention — no longer work? Not according to one of Australia’s most powerful spinners, Toby Ralph.
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“Of course it works,” he told Crikey. Ralph — who’s previously spun for tobacco companies, the nuclear waste industry, the big banks and the Liberal Party — says it’s almost “un-Australian” to not sneak out bad news while nobody is looking.
“I prefer dumping ignominies a couple of days before Christmas. The disgrace won’t make the front page, but will find good company at the back of the paper with like-minded others in the public eye trying to bury bodies without getting noticed,” he said.
Sure, the 24-hour media cycle has made the tactic less effective than it used to be, Ralph admits. Stories can theoretically be covered at most times, so it’s better to wait for a busy day than count on no one reporting on things after 6pm. “A global disaster is a free kick for people that need to bury scandals, because there’s only one front page, and it’s taken. When the Queen dies, take a look at the back of the paper and you’ll find it’s a graveyard of corporate and political indignities,” he said.
Other PR flacks aren’t so sure the tactic still has legs. Noel Turnbull, an adjunct professor of communications at RMIT University, tells Crikey that in an increasingly fragmented media market there’ll always be someone who thinks your story is important enough to get top billing.
“Frankly, these days, it’s not a tenable media strategy,” Turnbull said, adding that anyone who still ascribes to the tactic is something of a dinosaur. Wayne Burns of the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs agreed: “If you try to take out the trash these days, you end up in the middle of it.”
Even if journalists don’t immediately grasp the significance of what you’ve revealed, it’s likely stakeholders will tell them, Burns says. “With David Jones, just using it as an example, there’s enough stakeholders around who were never going to let the story get drowned out by Schapelle Corby wearing a mask and a hat through the streets of Seminyak. Not when the story is so important to them,” he said.
If trying to dump the story on a busy day fails, you can always pray for journalistic incompetence. “With the 24-hour media cycle, people have shorter memories,” Turnbull said. “A lot of journalists will now think, ‘oh, that story’s been covered a few hours ago, so we won’t do it now’. Which can serve to not properly promote important stories.”
Journalists will sometimes go back to important stories if they’ve been buried, but it’s pretty rare for this to have much impact, Ralph says. “Sure, some journalists may dig up the yarn after the psychological break of Santa coming to town, but these tend to be lazier second-rate hacks, rather than respected opinion leaders, so it won’t get much of a trot if at all.
“Most journalists hardly have time to scratch their arse, let alone chase suspicious stories. Thankfully, some good ones still do.”