Victorian Enquiry: Ballarat Diocese (Or: Watch the Shadows)


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Once, a standard response a public figure could get away with, was that of “No comment!” while fleeing the horde of encircling media people. The good old days some would say.

Then, it was all in the press release. Not any more. Now, it would be wise to stop and give the media a message that has been pre-scripted while still attempting to avoid answering difficult questions. So, everyday, we see them standing in a readily-recognizable place, such as the entrance to Parliament House or at a lectern in a Hotel function room. Sometimes the location can have symbolic significance, such as in a factory or school. This is the stage, background or setting of the script.

In the old back-and-white days of television, the author had the experience of working for a short time with an international public relations firm which specialized in TV appearances for politicians and business leaders. It was an interesting learning experience of what was, at the time, reasonably advanced methods. Of course, it is all a lot more developed in these days of the 24-hour news cycle.

Then, it was largely a matter of advising then to straighten their ties before the camera started rolling rather than afterwards. It was also a lot simpler because there was no need to advise women, since very few of them were either politicians or business leaders! The episode of “Yes Minister” BBC series, in which the Minister is depicted being prepared for a telecast, accurately portrays the times.

Nowadays, we are seeing the development of scripts for people who are trying to make the public think they have made unforeseen mistakes, and that everything is being done correctly. A recent example has been the horse-meat contamination scandal. “No comment” just doesn’t wear.

Given that most of the organisations due to front the Royal Commission have access to standard PR developments, it is likely that their representatives will be well coached in the “Yes, Minister” techniques. Recent church officials at the Victorian enquiry have all been well-groomed, neatly-dressed and don’t do things like lean into the camera or shout into the microphone.

Much more practice is involved in preparing them along the lines of the politician, such as answering a question different to that asked, answering your own question or simply changing the subject or, if necessary, rambling on so much that people forget the original question. An expert can get the interviewer to forget! They don’t have a choice of scene either. It would be better for them to be seen in their own power setting of a cathedral, rather than the drab environs of the enquiry.

The new “I’m- really- sorry- and- it- won’t –happen- again” scripts rely on the media cycle moving on to other things, and the memory of the awkward event fading, leaving only a general impression that things are O.K., now. It might work for food scandals, and even for some political scandals, but is useless when the scandal is child sexual abuse on a grand, and even possibly organized, scale.

All appearances by officials trying to defend the indefensible have followed the very same script and have become all too predictable.

    1. Appear to acknowledge the problem, but try to minimize it and cast doubt on its full accuracy.
    2. Express shock, surprise etc. at having the information thrust on you.
    3. Condemn the behaviour in exaggerated terms.
    4. Emphasise how much you are distressed by the events
    5. Strenuously apologize for any harm that may have been inflicted.
    6. Declare that it must be even worse for the victims. (Offering condolences helps!)
    7. Nebulously suggest procedures are in place to ensure it never happens again.
    8. Announce the appointment of some fairly-well known figure with an impressive qualification to head a committee, or produce a report.
    9. Try to walk away with some semblance of dignity.

Cardinal Pell (caricatured above) may need his PR advisors to get with the latest thinking on the “I’m sorry” script before he appears before the Victorian enquiry shortly, as the old techniques will not work.

The tragedy of the Boston marathon bombings showed what the “I really am sorry” position is. The bombers’ uncle’s apology caused much comment because it was so obviously sincere, and pulled no punches about the evil of the event. He faced the media grilling without the protection of lawyers or minders, in his own front yard, then apologized to the neighbours for the disruption caused by the media event.

Anything short of this kind of response will leave everyone unconvinced that these organisations are now genuine in their stated positions. Justice and healing demand the absence of any shadow of doubt.

So far, we have not seen such a script from any of the offending organisations.

TOMORROW: The Ballarat Bishops’ Script

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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