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 that have swirled around parliament house and the Liberal Party over the last fortnight are not going away because of the now sizeable gulf between public statements around care for women, and the sometimes dismissive, sometimes insulting, sometimes opaque responses to the issue 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 who are trying to present a crisis as over. A closed world. A resolved problem. The media don’t move on from problems that are perceived to be systemic, entrenched, and unresolved.
When a crisis media expert is called in to help, their 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 your 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 governments has been following the airing of the Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter allegations.
But the lack of congruence in messaging points to a greater problem in the Party, and another touchstone of crisis media management, the issue of leadership.
Morrison’s 2018 victory over Bishop and 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 to produce congruent policy lines.
While Morrison’s narrow tranche of support inside the party may have impacted 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 lynchpin of his political brand.
Political distrust is a cumulative thing as 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.
Amazingly, while the Premiers all elevated themselves in the eyes of the public during COVID, Morrison has hardly got the lift you’d expect in this context. He’s wasted several crises now and failed to grab a hold of the leadership opportunity afforded him. While the Premiers have acted, Morrison has 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.
And to make matters worse for Morrison, Albanese is adopting a small target approach. He’s not opening up a multitude of policy fronts as Shorten did, nor is Albanese 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.