Case for checking and re-checking

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Having found itself on the public relations backfoot over the announcement that “Operation Fortitude” would target fraudulent visa holders, amongst others, who does the Australian Border Force (ABF) and Victorian police blame? The public relations department and a “clumsily worded” media release by a PR junior.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this was a manufactured excuse to get senior officers off the hook, but if it is true it raises the question – didn’t anyone check the draft release before it went out to see it was wrong or misleading?

Are we supposed to believe that no senior officer looked at it, even although it was obviously circulated internally? After all, we were told it went to the Minister’s office but he didn’t read it. So it seems a procedure was in place, but either it wasn’t followed or people simply went through the motions.

As someone working in communications in the financial services industry, it seems unbelievable to me that a release could be drafted on a major activity that was almost certainly going to create angst among sectors of the community, without alarm bells going off somewhere.

When we look at the strict compliance procedures in place at our clients we sometimes think they are overkill, but perhaps not. The ABF’s self-inflicted crisis suggests it needs similarly rigorous processes, which not only require legal and marketing sign-off for announcements, but have the expectation that the person responsible for the activity concerned is involved in the communications process and assesses the impact of any announcement on the organisation and its strategic direction.

Are we really to believe that an organisation with the powers of the ABF doesn’t have strict protocols in place before any statements are released? As it turned out, not only did the ABF create its own media crisis, it had to cancel the operation.

It’s like announcing a new product but being forced to withdraw it before the launch date.

It’s too easy to blame the public relations people, and often they can make mistakes in draft releases because of imperfect knowledge, but somewhere along the line there must be an expert not only checking the facts but also the implications.

Public relations people, whether they are senior or junior, can’t be expected to always know the subtleties of an issue as thoroughly as an organisation’s line experts. However they should be able to advise on the suitability of a release, its usability by the media, its strategic impact, likely community reaction, and whether any of the points made may damage the organisation.

 

If they were at fault this is where the ABF public relations people may have fallen down – they should have recognised the issues likely to arise from the release. Nevertheless, the compliance and clearance process should have highlighted the problems to senior executives so that the release was edited to make things clear and accurate.

If the “clumsily worded” release did in fact reflect the intent of the exercise, these concerns should have been raised a long time before a media release on the subject was drafted.

The public relations team should act as the conscience of an organisation. Occasionally we have to warn clients that an announcement idea they have developed might have elements which could tarnish their brand in a way they had not considered.

If they insist on going ahead with it we can only say “it is your reputation and your decision, and we will send out the release the way you want”. Unless of course it is dishonest or misleading and might damage our own reputation, then we would have to think seriously about the relationship.

There are times when it would be fantastic to be able to give a client a preview of the result of doing something the way they want compared with the reaction if it was done the way we advise.

The AFB and Victorian police leadership would have certainly done things differently if they had predicted the reaction to “Operation Fortitude” before the release went out.