Tin ear PR

Sometimes PR campaigns to address problems cause even bigger PR problems. For instance the aged care industry is planning a major campaign to ‘change the conversation’ and ‘win the hearts and minds of middle Australia’ according to The Age (2 September 2020).

To do so the industry has employed a PR company run by a former Murdoch reporter and Howard staffer and an ad man who worked on the Kevin07 campaign.

The industry won’t say what the campaign might involve but Age Services Australia CEO, Sean Rooney, said there was a ‘disconnect’ between community expectations and the current system.

“The industry is exploring how best to get that message across to parliamentarians from both sides of politics for the benefit of current and future older Australians.”

But that might be difficult because the campaign’s framing is a bit of a problem for a start. It is probably a huge mistake to characterise it as an ‘industry’ rather than a service. One has an industrial overtones while the other has at least some connection with serving and caring.

The disconnect between what the industry does and what the community expects is unsurprising. The community expectation is that well-trained and appropriate numbers of qualified staff are available to care for the aged. The disconnect occurs because government deregulation and the profit motive have meant staff lacking nursing qualifications, and casual employees who go from care home to care home, are the main workforce.

The community expects that residents will die with as much dignity as possible and that residents will be protected, as much as is possible, from the ravages of pandemics and health problems. The disconnect occurs because 99% of COVID-19 deaths in aged care occur in privately-run homes with only one per cent in government run ones. And from all reports it is a very miserable and painful death indeed.

The community also expects that, from the ongoing Royal Commission at least, there will be practical, well-regulated policies and practices governing the industry’s operations. The disconnect occurs because the Federal Government has exacerbated the problem and has indicated its lack of concern for the problem by appointing (and then failing to sack) a manifestly incompetent and uncaring Minister.

Since the miner’s backbone of the nation and anti-tax campaigns – ironic given the resource industry’s record of avoiding tax – such campaigns have become a default response for industries facing problems. Not all of these campaigns have been as successful and the mining industry had the advantage of pushing on an open door in the Liberal National Party rooms – particularly the Nationals which is a full-owned resource industry subsidiary.

It would not be surprising for a former PR man to say that in itself PR is not the problem nor that it’s not inherently evil. Rather it is a matter of how and why it is used – as discussed in How PR Works but often doesn’t.

In the form of available technology and tools persuasive communication has been around since artists illustrated the Lascaux caves, through Louis XIV to the present when the US military is the world’s biggest employer of PR and communications staff.

Equally the British campaign to end slavery headed by Thomas Clarkson relied on a massive PR campaign which sought to ‘change the conversation’ and reach politicians of all parties.

The statue toppling campaigns to remind the western world of the complicity of their forebears in slavery is another example. What is, after all, the difference between pulling down a statue and dumping tea in Boston Harbor? Both are actions designed to generate publicity and change minds.

The current UK campaign about slave owners and traders has had the added benefit of drawing attention to the lavish compensation slave traders received for giving up their business. While there is debate about whether or not the profits of slavery fuelled the industrial revolution, there is little doubt that it bought a few seats in the House of Commons just as oppression of Indians bought a few seats in the House of Lords.

There is also growing interest in how much slavery compensation money found its way to the Australian colonies and how many fortunes it founded. One can hardly wait to hear what variations on Scott Morrison’s usual ways of dismissing things he doesn’t want to talk about will be employed if the issue is raised with him.

In the US Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a major role in raising abolition campaign awareness while the work of William Douglas, other African Americans and white folks such as William Lloyd Garrison used persuasive techniques to fight for abolition. Garrison of course also campaigned for female suffrage and PR and communications were key parts of the suffragist campaigns around the world.

It would be a rash punter who bet on the chances of the aged care industry’s new campaign being even remotely successful particularly with the best of the Royal Commission yet to come.

Both strategically and tactically the aged care industry would have been better to save their money until after that happens and spend the time lobbying the Morrison government to water down the impact of any of its recommendations.

Changing the conversation on that would be cheaper and easier even allowing for a multiple campaign donations and fund-raiser attendances.

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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