One of the central tenets of handling a media crisis is congruence. If your external messaging isn’t matched by internal action, you’re setting yourself up for a bigger crisis than the issue of the day. You’re setting yourself up for essential mistrust of your brand.
The allegations of rape and sexual assault that have swirled around Parliament House and the Liberal Party for the past fortnight are not going away — in part because of the now sizeable gulf between public statements around care for women, and the sometimes dismissive, sometimes insulting, sometimes opaque responses from a number of loose units inside the government.
Loose units produce loose story threads and incoherent narratives that are hard to sell. They are a problem for organisations that try to present a crisis as over. A closed world. A resolved problem. The media don’t move on from problems that are perceived as systemic, entrenched and unresolved.
When a crisis media expert is called in to help, the job is to create public statements that identify victims, empathise with them, apologise to them if fault is determined, refer to trusted partners the organisation is working with to resolve the issue, articulate the course of action being taken, new protocols being introduced, and support being provided.
In other words, accepting a problem exists, apologising for it, talking about what change you’re bringing about, and offering material support.
But the job of the crisis media manager is impossible if genuine action isn’t being taken and the messaging is erratic — as the government’s has been following the airing of the Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter allegations.
The lack of congruence in messaging points to a greater problem in the party, and another touchstone of crisis media management: leadership.
Scott Morrison’s 2018 victory over Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton was something akin to the opportunist jumping out of the bushes at the last stretch of a marathon and sprinting to the finish line.
Morrison’s lack of a sizeable base of support inside the party may explain his inability to censure disparate factions and loose units within his party, and therefore produce congruent policy lines.
While his narrow tranche of support may have affected his ability to manoeuvre early, he hasn’t grown into the role and there’s nothing to suggest he has a strong raft of policy ideas he wants to pursue or can cohere the party around.
And that lack of policy direction and leadership is thrown into stark relief when there’s a crisis and a clear line needs to be articulated.
As a former marketing manager, Morrison understands the value of the image, of representation, but that type of approach comes unstuck in a crisis when the news cycle doesn’t quickly move on, when it sticks to a story and demands detail and action. Then you start to look evasive and slippery. It’s not a good look for a man who views his morality as the linchpin of his political brand.
Political distrust is a cumulative thing as John Howard discovered, his government being described by the end of his tenure as “mean and tricky” by the electorate. Morrison lost a lot of bark during the bushfire crisis, a situation only temporarily and faintly alleviated by COVID-19.
While the premiers all elevated themselves in the eyes of the public during the pandemic, Morrison has hardly got the lift you’d expect in this context.
He’s wasted several crises now and has failed to grab hold of the leadership opportunity afforded him. While the premiers acted, Morrison prevaricated and stood back. Whether that’s a force of habit now or whether there is internecine strife that his leadership is unable to paper over is hard to discern at a distance.
In truth the shambolic nature of the federal Liberal Party was on full display before the last election. It appears from the outside the party is no longer a broad church, but a confederacy of conservatism hijacked by ideational warlords.
And to make matters worse for Morrison, Anthony Albanese is adopting a small-target approach. He’s not opening up a multitude of policy fronts as Bill Shorten did, nor is he suffering stage fright as some suggest. He’s not interested in posturing to the left on social democratic values; he’s looking to win the centre on contemporary issues identified in polling and to amplify their concerns.
Usually a party doesn’t vacate the political stage to its opponent — but given the rolling dysfunction of a government in thrall to a conservative rump, it could be a winning formula.
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David Latham is a registered lobbyist and crisis media consultant at Good Talent Media.