Australia PM delivers PR disaster as country burns

While the bush fires in Australia have been gaining significant coverage in the UK, perhaps what has not come across quite so clearly here is just how much of a PR disaster its Prime Minister has been having.  

Scott Morrison has stumbled from one controversy to another while his country burns.

He’s had to apologise for a secret holiday, produced awkward sound-bites; seemed more concerned about the cricket and appeared to lack empathy for those caught up in the bushfire crisis. 

It has been a masterclass in how a senior leader should not manage a crisis.

One of the biggest criticisms Mr Morrison has faced surrounds his decision to head off for a family holiday in Hawaii in the midst of the crisis.

Not only was this a terrible look at a time when he should have been showing visible leadership – a fundamental crisis media management rule - but it was made worse by his office lying about it.

Having initially tried to cover-up his absence, It was reportedly reluctant to answer questions on his whereabouts and told journalists they were “wrong” that he was in Hawaii, only for pictures to emerge of him on the American island with holidaymakers.

While he was away, #wherethebloodyhellareyou – an advertising slogan created by Tourism Australia when Mr Morrison was its managing director - and #wheresScotty, trended on social media, together with missing posters, and Hawaiian shirts with the Prime Minister’s face were created with profits going to volunteer fire organisations.

Eventually, Mr Morrison, who has a marketing background, issued the sort of a non-apology apology we all too often see during crisis media management incidents. He said: “I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time.”

But before he got back to Australia, he made the situation worse with an interview with Sydney radio 2GB where he attempted to excuse his holiday by saying: “I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room’.

In another interview, he spoke about the importance of a work/life balance and compared his decision to go on holiday during the crisis to a plumber deciding to take on an extra job on a Friday afternoon.

He said: “We all make decisions… we all seek to balance our work-life responsibilities and we all try and get that right.

“We can all make better decisions on occasions, and I was pretty upfront about that with the Australian people yesterday.

“Whether it’s on a Friday afternoon and you decide to take that extra plumbing contract and you said you were going to pick up the kids, or something at my level, these are things you juggle as parents.”

Back in Australia, and the Prime Minister opened himself to more criticism on New Year’s Day after hosting a lavish reception for the Australia and New Zealand cricket teams ahead of the upcoming Test match.

Many people felt that reception - in aid of charity – should not have gone ahead at all

But it was again his comments which landed him in hot water, with his assertion that the fires were happening “against the backdrop of this Test match” proving particularly jarring for many people.

He said: “The fires do rage on. It is a time of great challenge for Australia. Whether they’re started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be, our firefighters and all of those who have come behind them to support them, whether they’re volunteering on the frontline or behind the scenes in a great volunteer effort, it is something that will happen against the backdrop of this Test match.”

Surely a statement that should have been put the other way around.

Further uncomfortable optics were provided during a visit to Cobargo, one of the worst-hit areas in the state of New South Wales, when Mr Morrison appeared to pick up the hand of a local woman and shake it against her will, before turning away from her mid-sentence.

There is also unease in Australia about Mr Morrison’s reluctance to acknowledge the link between bushfires and climate change.

In fact, his New Year’s message painted it as just another natural disaster, and could easily be read as an attempt to downplay what is happening.  

He said: “Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic. And we will not do this now in the face of the current fire crisis.

“The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought. They also faced extreme economic hardship that current generations have never experienced.”

There’s plenty that can be learnt from Mr Morrison’s handling of this crisis. But what’s perhaps most surprising is that a Prime Minister from a marketing background doesn’t already know them.

 

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