opera house everest race

Thanks to Alan Jones’ bullying, and a NSW premier who catered to his whims, there’s a stack of people who’ve now heard of The Everest horse race who wouldn’t have otherwise.

Jones turned the barrier draw, beamed onto the Sydney Opera House sails on Tuesday evening, into a national story when he repeatedly spoke over and yelled at Opera House chief Louise Herron for initially rejecting the projection. This prompted Gladys Berejiklian to overrule the national icon’s decision. It was a very Sydney story that had something for everyone, and it dominated weekend newspapers and news bulletins for days.

But is it necessarily good for the race if the reason it has become a household name is because it was the centre of controversy?

Most of the public relations experts Crikey has spoken to think that, overall, the kerfuffle was good for the race. Former Age editor and communications expert Mike Smith said that while the adage “all publicity is good publicity” doesn’t always apply, it does in this case — for Racing NSW, at least.

“The name of the event will be much better known around the world,” Smith said. “There may be a short term negative effect on Racing NSW for some people, but if Racing NSW can succeed in building that race and festival into anything like the Melbourne Cup, then you have to take your hat off to them. They’d be pretty rapt, but they’d never admit it — any negatives for them will soon be gone.”

Tony Jaques, an issues and crisis management consultant and expert, agreed, saying that the race and Racing NSW weren’t the subjects of the bad publicity in this case.

“From my perspective, the race received massive exposure among many people who might otherwise have no had no particular interest or even heard of it (especially outside NSW) and it’s hard to see the race as being the villain of the piece,” he said.

Veteran spin doctor Sue Cato wasn’t quite so positive, telling Crikey: “I have never been of the view that all publicity is good publicity. Perhaps they could rebrand The Everest. Let’s just cut to the chase and call it Vesuvius. This year they cratered it and splattered excrement across the country.”

As to whether the coverage was good or bad publicity for other players is a bit more clear.

“The NSW Premier doesn’t come out of it very well,” Smith said. “The NSW government will be very careful about doing anything like that again in the future.”

Distinguished Professor Jim Macnamara, head of the University of Technology Sydney’s public communication discipline, said that while there had been a short-term benefit for the race itself, the outrage had shown that the general public did not consider the Sydney Opera House  a “billboard”, and that advertising horse racing on a world heritage site and Australian icon didn’t reflect the public’s values. “The controversy reflects the broader unsavoury influence of gambling on Australia’s media, sports and politicians,” he said.

And while Jaques pointed to cases where bad publicity has definitely been bad for business — the banking royal commission, Elon Musk’s Twitter-triggered SEC case, the South Australian town of Snowtown — Smith said that sometimes outrage can work as a marketing strategy. In 1996, Mars sponsored Carlton Football Club and paid the club to change its colours from dark to light blue to promote a new M&M colour. “There was a lot of outrage, but the product had remarkable publicity for not even a new product, but a new colour. They got a lot of sales, and the outrage was soon forgotten,” he said.

Less successful was another Mars company gimmick of getting Geelong player Garry Hocking to change his name by deed poll to Whiskas, one of its pet food brands. “That was a complete fizzer,” Smith said. The idea was that “Whiskas” would be printed in team sheets and programs, but the AFL refused and referred to him by his number instead, and Whiskas (né Hocking) changed his name back.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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