Spinning Around in Their Reality – Austereo Following the PR Playbook

The last days since what is now called the “Royal Prank Tragedy” has been curious, but not entirely surprising. Not in the least that I have had Gerard Henderson, of the Sydney Institute, basically writing a similar argument about radio pranks as I articulated in my previous blog post. Rarely have the Sydney and Preston Institutes agreed so heartily.  I had other responses from various people, including a former employee of Austereo who spoke of a headquarters “decorated from material that looked like seconds from the Death Star” and likened working for them to this scene from The Dark Crystal:

Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) itself hasn’t covered itself in glory either in the last days, with a number of gaffes that seem to show that they haven’t any intention to change their culture or their macho approach to corporate responsibility to society.

1. Blame the Hospital for Not Answering the Phone.

Rhys Holleran, the CEO of SCA, said that the station “tried to ring the hospital” to gain permission to play the stunt.  Not only has this been denied by the hospital, it shows a complete misunderstanding by SCA of their culpability. Instead of trying to avoid censure from ACMA for not following the Commercial Radio Code of Practice, what they should have said is “we should never have run the prank, having not been able to contact the hospital”.  It sounds like the program director or whoever was responsible for the show said something like “oh, well, it’s just a great prank, let’s just get it on air and sort out the legals later”.   It comes out as blame shifting, rather than taking responsibility.

2. “It Can’t Have Just Been Our Prank That Did This”

Austereo’s Sandy Kaye, when speaking to the New York Post about the tragedy, said what a number of people around water coolers – and even the presenters on The View – have been saying for the past few days –

“Surely, there’s a lot more to suicide than a prank call where a woman has [done nothing more than] put through a phone call…  Perhaps the hospital should have known about that. If that turns out to be the case and they knew about her fragile situation, then why would you leave her on the front line?”

While this kind of speculation isn’t surprising amongst people away from the media and even on a public water cooler discussion show like The View, it’s astonishingly insensitive when coming from a spokesperson from the company directly involved.  It’s more blame shifting – inferring the King Edward VII should not have nurses working at their hospital if they are “fragile”. After all, as we know, it wasn’t usually her job to answer phones – she was a nurse on station at 5.30 am, who just happened to answer a phone.

Then there were the PR playbook moves that shouldn’t have been fooling anyone – but probably are.

1. Parade the Hosts On Tightly Controlled Media

Many people saw the tearful interview with the two hosts in question – it is not surprising that they feel great remorse and regret. Interestingly, they absolved themselves from an amount of responsibility from what happened after the call was made – which shows that this was indeed an Austereo blame shifting culture problem, where hosts are encouraged to make such calls, but then pass responsibility onto others.  The interview was intended to make viewers sympathise with the hosts, probably with the hope being that it distracts possible anger towards their bosses that foster the culture.

If Austereo were serious about having remorse for their action, the station staff directly responsible for co-ordinating pranks and allowing the material going to air should be interviewed – and not by a friendly, sympathetic interviewer like the ones found on ACA or TT. Or, maybe they should get the kind of treatment that “dodgy welfare cheats” get from those programs.  Doubtful, considering SCA is a major purchaser of advertising on Channels 7 and 9.

2. Suspend Advertising and Cancel the Show

This is the trick 2GB played when Alan Jones was receiving negative publicity after the Died in Shame incident.  They suspended advertising for two weeks – and now the advertisers would be knocking on the door, knowing that Jones’ ratings have increased since the incident. Austereo have done the same – it will be interesting to see how long that lasts.  The show, the Hot 30, has been cancelled, which is an odd decision, given that it’s mostly a music show, with the latest popular songs with a bit of banter between them. I can’t think 2Day won’t have a show like that again.  Again, more spin from the company.

I don’t agree with Tum Burrowes of Mumbrella that Holleran should resign. This would be yet another token sacrifice that companies do when they want to deflect criticism and don’t want to change their culture. This is why I suspect that he will probably resign soon enough.  What should happen is a root and branch review and a cancelling of pranks that target the bystanders.  I don’t think this will happen.  If The View is anything to go by, there is still a belief that such pranks in themselves are harmless and a bit of fun – as I have been told by many outside the Twitterverse in the last couple of days.

Little doubt this will story will continue to play out and then finally fade away, leaving behind the tragedy and the family involved. It can’t be easy to have a loved one’s mental state being speculated upon by American TV shows.  Ultimately, the executives of SC Austereo will survive this.  They will continue to live in what the former Austereo employee who talked to me called their alternative reality.  For those people trying to change their macho, rigid self belief, the phone message they will receive would go like this – “The reality you are accessing is no longer in service. Please contact your local reality provider.”

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