As more and more women come forward with stories of sexual harassment and indecent assault in the workplace and elsewhere, executives and their consultants — especially in media and entertainment — have been nervously reviewing their crisis management plans.

Alleged perpetrators, such as Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, who is currently subject to a inquiry by the council and new investigation after accusations of sexual harassment, are going a step further, calling in their own spinners to protect their personal reputations. Doyle’s use of consultant Mishe Paterson, of Newgate Communications, in this matter has been well-documentedThe Age has reported that Bastion Reputation Management knocked back Doyle, and Crikey knows of at least two others who have done the same.

It seems that there are two kinds of media crisis managers: those who will take almost any client who asks, and those who will not. Veteran spinner Toby Ralph, who has told Crikey in the past that he’d work for anyone who paid him, falls into the former category, telling us he’s only ever turned down two clients for ethical reasons. 

“Few issues are black and white,” he said. “I fundamentally believe that a mature society needs to hear both sides of a story. Only then can it make an informed decision.” Other spin doctors are a bit more cautious with who they’ll represent, keeping in mind that they could end up in the story themselves, and will continue to be associated with the issue.

The best in the business

Ralph’s name often comes up when you’re talking with those in the know about crisis management in Australia, and he described the reputational management part of his job thus: “Shit happens, and when it does, people like me get calls.”

Another name that pops up time after time when discussing the industry with other insiders is Sue Cato. She told the Australian Financial Review in 2012 that she doesn’t take on jobs she doesn’t believe in. Jobs she has taken, though, include representing former David Jones CEO Mark McInnes when he was facing sexual harassment accusations in 2010, and Pacific Brands CEO Sue Morphet when she was cutting Australian manufacturing jobs in 2009.

Andrew Butcher (a former executive at News Corp) and Mike Smith (a former editor of The Age) also come up as preferred options to give you a hand if you’re in a bind. Someone with their media connections can be invaluable when you’re backgrounding or trying to push a certain line in the media.

Tactics

Dishing out dirt on victims/whistleblowers/enemies is frowned upon by many spinners as a tactic to help restore their clients’ reputations. The general view among those we spoke to was it’s hard to get out of the gutter once you’re in there. (But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen.)

Once a crisis breaks, the priority is usually to first get across the client’s side of the story and to then get ahead of the issue with media releases, events and potentially interviews. The best way to do that (if you can get away with it legally and with insurers) is to be completely transparent.

“Experiment with truth,” Ralph said. “I tell my clients to be entirely candid about what happened, what else might result from the issue, what is being done to fix it and how they’ll stop it happening again … People are not dumb, they know things go wrong and will often tolerate it, but if your response is weasel words, blame-shifting and obliqueness they’ll rip you to bits. Slowly.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Another veteran in the field, Mike Smith, told Crikey that one of the biggest challenges was working with a client’s legal advisers. “In any crisis, transparency and the truth is the best weapon, but sometimes that has to be tempered with a legal handcuff. That doesn’t make it untruthful,” he said.

One thing that’s not often recommended is a tell-all interview because they’re risky. If you’re going to do it, you need a client who’s a good media performer. Broadcast is best, with a sympathetic interviewer. Smith says the key with a mea culpa or “cleansing interview” is to give a full apology, if that’s what you’re going to do. “The only thing worse than no apology is a half apology,” he said. You might say celebrity gardener Don Burke’s interview with A Current Affair falls squarely into the half-apology category.

Can spinners redeem you?

Smith reckons it is possible to come back from a reputational crisis (although it is tough).

“There is an opportunity to come out of the crisis better and stronger. Not very often, but it does happen — when you follow all the rules and go further. You need to do everything people expect you to and then something more,” he said.

He cites Johnson and Johnson in 1982, when some of the company’s painkillers were laced laced with cyanide. They went beyond usual crisis management rules — giving a full apology despite not being responsible, recalling all of the product (unheard of at the time), and quickly introducing tamper-proof packs that are now an industry standard. But coming up with an example of someone whose personal reputation has been damaged and who had completely come back from it with the use of consultants is much trickier.

But, Ralph said, the best way to manage a crisis is just not to have one at all: “Unsurprisingly companies that have thought things through tend not to need crisis management consulting. Maybe I should stop doing it as it’s bad for business.”

Our next ‘Inside The Spin’ installment will feature a collection of behind-the-scenes stories from Australian spin doctors and those embroiled in their biggest controversies.

Peter Fray

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