Australia’s public relations community is urging Southern Cross Austereo to allow 2DayFM presenters Mel Greig and Christian Michael to speak out about their prank call at the centre of the suicide of British nurse, Jacintha Saldanha.
Greig and Michael called the King Edward VII hospital last Tuesday posing as the Queen and her corgie, asking the nurse on call intimate details about the Duchess of Cambridge’s medical condition. The call was subsequently broadcast on air.
Saldanha had been manning the hospital switchboard and transferred the call through to Kate Middleton’s ward.
Both presenters have been in hiding since the news of Saldanha’s death, their show suspended and their Twitter accounts deleted.
Southern Cross Austereo released a statement to the media early on Saturday morning saying the presenters were “deeply shocked” and stressed that “at this time we have agreed that they not comment about the circumstances”.
SCA CEO Rhys Holleran updated the media at an emergency press conference on Saturday but neither of the radio hosts has been permitted to speak with press, personally apologise or explain the context of the prank call.
While shielding the presenters may be a necessary evil for legal reasons, it’s not the best PR strategy according to Kat Thomas, managing director of PR agency One Green Bean.
“The one thing I would do differently is that I would field those two DJs. They want to speak. It looks like they are being held at bay by management and legal but there is an appetite for people to hear an apology from them. I think that would be a more appropriate way of handling it than having them in hiding behind corporate spokespeople and lawyers.
“The reaction from the British media is almost witch hunt like and they are baying for an apology, not of the corporate kind but of the human kind.”
According to crisis management experts, the keys to communicating with the public about this tragedy are transparency, honesty and timeliness.
While some have criticized the station for being slow off the mark with their public response – (the Australian media received SCA’s statement at 5:40am on Saturday morning, but CNN had the story at midnight on Friday) – Brian Shrowder, director of crisis and issues management at Hill + Knowlton Strategies believes the network has, so far, handled the situation appropriately.
“In crisis management speed of response is important and the fact that they got their CEO Rhys Holleran in a press conference on the same day that the news broke in Australia is important.
“This is a tragic and unforeseeable outcome of prank call and I think the tone of their communications so far has been pretty right. They’ve voiced their concerns for the family, which is the right thing to do.”
But apologies won’t be enough for the public to forgive the network any time soon. According to Ogilvy Public Relations’ media director Sam North, someone’s head will have to roll.
“Their contrition is obviously genuine but I think the public will need to see someone be seriously disciplined for this.
“Someone made this decision and we need to see that person – whether it be the program manager or the station manager – be disciplined in a really dramatic way.”
Furthermore, SCA should carefully avoid positioning itself as a “victim” of the UK tabloid media, stresses Hill + Knowlton’s Shrowder.
“The one thing they have to be careful of is making themselves out to be the victims of the British press. The British press and tabloid media is hopping into this in a very big way so SCA has to avoid the temptation to say ‘We are the victim of an attack by the British press'.”
Ultimately, however, the network needs to change the discussion if it wants to save its reputation, says Ogilvy PR’s North.
At present SCA is scrambling to diffuse the tirade of global anger and is focusing on the short term ramifications of this disaster, but it should turn its attentions be re-positioning itself as a station committed to furthering the case for responsible radio practices.
“What they’ve got to do is change the debate and take it forward rather than have everyone looking back. If I were advising them I would ask them to try and take a step forward by saying ‘We are going to lead a radio industry push to have much stronger self regulation’,” North told B&T.
“They should use this as a position to lead the industry into a new era of responsibility of making sure facts are right and making sure stations act within the letter and the intent of any ethical standards that they set.”
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