By Malcolm Cole
SAS Group Director of Media and Communications
The sad affairs surrounding the Australian Cricket Team in South Africa have consumed more than enough air time and column centimetres in recent days, and most Australians are probably ready to move on. However, before we do, it’s worth reflecting on the communications efforts of Cricket Australia in the midst of the crisis.
The three most important factors in any crisis communications are:
Collectively, Cricket Australia and the players failed each one of these tests at various stages in recent days, arguably contributing to the media maelstrom that has engulfed them.
Let’s deal with honesty first of all. In his media conference on the day of the incident, captain Steve Smith made two statements that have now been shown to be knowingly false. Smith claimed that the players used sticky tape to damage the ball. We now know that the product used was sandpaper. Smith also attributed the plot to “the leadership group”. We are now told it was simply the captain and vice captain. Both of these false claims have now rebounded on to Smith, and were cited as part of the reason for his lengthy suspension. And while they may have helped him avoid awkward questions in that moment, they have prolonged the media scandal. Our first rule of crises is that people will forgive a stuff-up, but never a cover-up.
The second element is speed. Cricket Australia was caught flat-footed on this issue, and it seemed to take several days before the CEO James Sutherland fully understood the gravity of the situation - initially only sending two representatives to South Africa to deal with the situation before eventually relenting and travelling himself. And while CA had to follow due process in its investigations, it failed to keep its audience informed of the likely timelines, which added to the sense that matters were not being taken seriously. It was once said that the first 24 hours – one full daily media cycle – were crucial in dealing with any crisis. In this age of digital communications, that response time has been compressed and is much closer to two hours than 24. Cricket Australia was just too slow off the mark.
And finally, sincerity is key. Perversely, sometimes the speed of a response can be contradictory to sincerity. This was the case with CA’s email early this week apologising to its database of fans. It said it was sorry to its fans, but it hadn’t yet determined what it was sorry about. The tone of the email suggested it was straight from a PR playbook, and it seemed to lack sincerity in its message. That impression has been backed up by Sutherland’s refusal to call this whole sorry saga for what it is – cheating. After several days he has today conceded that some people would call the players’ actions cheating. But his refusal to speak the – admittedly ugly – truth have opened up other avenues of media attack. If you want people to believe you’re truly sorry for what’s happened, you need to be sincere in your remorse.
So in any media or communications crisis, remember the three factors you need – Honesty, speed and sincerity. There’s also a fourth factor – you need The SAS Group. Our experienced media practitioners can guide you safely through a media crisis, or help you to plan to prevent one. Contact us to talk about your crisis readiness.
A quick update - Steve Smith's press conference as soon as he returned to Australia was timely, honest and sincere. He has changed the media environment and started on the path to redemption. He was brave and genuine, and got the three elements right. It shows the power of doing your comms well.