Whoever was tasked with driving George Colombaris’ public relations campaign recently was handed a poison chalice. It was a PR exercise doomed to failure.

Like many Australians, after cooking myself a hot breakfast and making a cup of tea a few Saturday’s ago, I sat down to have a leisurely read of the paper. But as I made my way to the crossword section, I notice the shining, iridescent, haloed head of George Calombaris sitting on the cover of the Good Weekend lift-out like a religious icon.

The headline of the article – which I didn’t bother to read – was about how meditation was helping George Calombaris through a trying time, i.e. the period in which he was asked to pay his staff years on unpaid penalties.

I let out a slight puff of air and a sound of exasperation because, again, like many Australians, several days earlier I had learned about George Calombaris being compelled by the Fair Work Commission to pay a $200,000 “contrition payment” as well as $7.8 million in back-pay to staff.

It’s fair to say that the Good Weekend piece, which was presumably there to soften the image of Calombaris, missed the PR boat; by quite a distance.

Penny wise and pound poor

The timing of the piece was problematic, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had arrived in the week preceding the judgement because Calombaris for some time had failed to pay the right wages and had also complained publicly about penalty rates, which gave the distinct impression that he was not at all concerned about his people.

That’s particularly a problem for a business built around an individual. The fact that a week later Calombaris quit TV show ‘Master Chef’ due to insufficient money was just more grist to the mill that was wreaking serious damage on Calombaris’ brand.

A fortnight after the court judgment and that fateful Good Weekend puff-piece and George Calombaris’ restaurants sit empty.

And this is the real danger and PR lesson. PR can help you build your profile, carefully and painstakingly, but if you don’t do the right thing the whole thing can come crashing down overnight.

Legal jousting or protecting your brand

It’s a lesson a lot of businesses fail to take proper account of. In a race to become as profitable as possible, proper care isn’t taken to protect their brand.

While it’s reasonable to want to keep costs under control, it’s not advisable to always take the low road and certainly not to breach legal agreements regarding pay and awards.

What would have been advisable when it became public knowledge that staff were being underpaid was to right the ship by paying staff their entitlements – and in some haste – to publicly commit to paying them the right amount in the future, and perhaps to making a financial or material gesture to compensating everyone for the inconvenience.

Instead the scandal continued to bubble away; with the unpaid wages bill believed to be $2.6 million a few years ago, and now triple that figure.

What Calombaris is going through now is a full-blown brand and media crisis whose effects could prove catastrophic.

Taking the legal course on these matters is not only expensive; it serves to make Calombaris look evasive and uncaring.

If Calombaris had taken the advice of another well-known Greek, Aesop, he might have been satisfied to continue laying his golden eggs, instead of killing the golden goose.

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.

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