The good, the bad and the very underwhelming – analysis of Aussie PR responses
Cavill Stone, November, 2023

The third and final part of our content series on crisis communications is a deep dive into some of the more questionable PR crises handling of the last few years.

As we dissect these responses, some may make us cringe with discomfort but it's during these unpredictable times that we grasp the importance of crisis communications plan and clear strategy to roll out when things go bad… As you read these case studies, you have to wonder if PR professionals were consulted to manage the responses of these brands or if they were only brought into the fold when things got really bad?

Emma Claiir's Cat Chronicles: A Twisted Tail

Sydney-based influencer Emma Claiir faced a dramatic career setback when she released a podcast episode recounting a regrettable incident involving the accidental death of two cats from her past. Unsurprising, her story triggered a wave of criticism and her social media channels were flooded with disapproval from her audience. In the realm of influencing, your name is your brand and unfortunately, Emma’s subpar stance on the crisis led to her losing lucrative brand partnerships.

Emma's response to the mounting criticism fell massively short of the expectations of an effective crisis management strategy. Her initial statement was perceived as lacking empathy, and most notably was missing an apology for her actions, instead doubling down with the phrase “sorry not sorry”. She described the incident as 'light-hearted' humour and urged people to take the matter less seriously. In a matter of days, Aussie brands such as MCoBeauty, Glassons and Princess Polly had released public statements distancing themselves from Emma and reaffirming their positions on animal cruelty.

In response to the crisis and the public’s reaction to her story, if Emma Claiir was our client, we would have advised her to issue a sincere and heartfelt apology in the first instance. This apology should have acknowledged her wrongdoing and expressed remorse for her past actions, making it clear that she understood the gravity of the situation. It was vital for her to demonstrate accountability, ensuring her words and actions were free of any excuses or minimisation of her past behaviour.

While Emma did eventually issue a more sincere apology, the damage had been done and as a result, Emma has since closed her social media accounts.

Lorna Jane's $5 Million Oopsie: When Activewear Tried to Fight COVID-19!

Lorna Jane, the activewear brand, received a $5 million fine and strong criticism from the federal court for falsely advertising its clothing as COVID-19 preventative. The "anti-virus activewear" with "LJ Shield" claimed pathogen protection, a finding the court deemed misleading and predatory.

Initially, Lorna Jane defended 'LJ Shield,' citing two years of development and testing. They clarified that LJ Shield is designed to reduce bacteria and odours, not to replace hygiene practices like mask-wearing and handwashing. Subsequently, following the fines and slap on the wrist, the company admitted to misleading consumers about LJ Shield Activewear's virus protection, blaming a supplier, and removing deceptive marketing.

In our opinion, Lorna Jane's initial response showed a lack of accountability, as they defended their technology and shifted blame to a supplier rather than promptly admitting to the false claims. Immediate acceptance of responsibility is crucial in a PR crisis to avoid further damage to public trust. Additionally, the company only confessed to misleading consumers after facing fines and widespread criticism, revealing a reactive, rather than proactive approach. A more effective response would have involved swift acknowledgment and corrective action, independent of regulatory intervention.

During a PR crisis, it's vital to convey empathy and genuine concern for public safety. Lorna Jane's initial response focused on defending the technology's broader benefits beyond COVID-19 protection, which did not align with public health concerns during a pandemic.

In responding to such a crisis, a company should immediately acknowledge and fully accept responsibility for any misleading claims. They should halt misleading advertising, remove false claims from their platforms, and maintain transparency in communication with the public. Issuing a sincere public apology, addressing affected customers' concerns, launching educational campaigns on responsible advertising, and committing to long-term ethical business practices supported by a crisis management team are all vital steps in rebuilding the company's reputation.

Harvey Norman’s bizarre PR strategy: Twitter Trolling

As Harvey Norman came under fire for withholding $20.5 million in JobKeeper handouts from staff, company chair Gerry Harvey added fuel to the fire by actively lobbying to freeze an increase to the minimum wage for his workers – despite record profits during the pandemic.

In an undoubtedly questionable move, Harvey Norman’s social media team made things a thousand times worse when they began trolling people on Twitter as consumers began to boycott the brand and question the morales and ethics of management. In response to a former employee’s serious mental health concerns, they responded with a face-palm and waving emoji. They than began blocking followers before deleting their accounts completely and ignoring requests for comment.

This baffling response created damage beyond repair for the Aussie brand. The hashtag #boycottharveynorman started trending across social media and nothing but silence from the brand.

An apology and authentic show of empathy would have been reasonable first steps in this cringeworthy PR crisis. From our perspective, the lack of accountability or acknowledgment of any wrongdoing from the brand was an incredibly poor choice. We would have advised them to take responsibility through the release of a statement in an effort to control the message rather than reacting on social media. This example also highlights the importance of a pre-determined crisis communications team and strategy for your crisis communications.

Kmart’s Ham-Mas Blunder – Swift action wins the day

We thought it would be helpful to wrap up with an example of a brand doing crisis comms right. Just yesterday, Kmart pulled a Christmas themed ham bag from stores and apologised after a complaint from an Australian Jewish group.

The festive bag, emblazoned with the words ‘MERRY HAM-MAS!’ was an innocent attempt at a tongue in cheek pun, however consumers pointed out the wording unintentionally echoed the name of the terror group that controls Gaza and is currently involved in a war with Israel.

Rather than trying to explain the joke or defend the product which was released before the conflict in the Middle East, Kmart immediately removed the item from sale and released a sincere apology.

“We got it wrong on this occasion and we apologise unreservedly. When designing this product we clearly didn’t think through all the implications and the product has been removed from sale.”

This authentic response and swift action reiterates the brands commitment to taking ownership and doing better. By doing this, the potential crisis will be out of the news cycle before it even gains momentum – a big thumbs up from us to Kmart’s PR team!

Lessons from Chaos: A Crisis Communication Conclusion

If you were to take just one piece of advice from this entire content series, please let it be this … no matter how insignificant you think a scenario may be, if you even have the slightest inkling that it could escalate into a PR crisis, consult your PR team immediately! You have absolutely nothing to lose by sense checking a decision with your PR team … but potentially everything to lose if you leave your PR team out of the loop and ignore an issue that needs to be addressed.

If you need help in developing your brand’s crisis communications plan or just want to have a team on hand that you can call if things go south, please reach out to us for more information on our crisis communications services. You hope you never have to use it, but you don’t want to be without it if you do so get in touch today.