A Crisis in One Culture May Be Commonplace in Another

Erik Bernstein crisis communications, crisis management, crisis preparation, Crisis Prevention, crisis public relations, Crisis Response, media training, Olympics, public relations, reputation management, social media, Tony Jaques 1 Comment

It depends on the culture

[Editor’s note:  We’re pleased to bring you this article from crisis consultant Tony Jaques.]

While the Internet and online technology is rapidly flattening out cultural differences, an incident in Australia provides a reminder that what might be commonplace in one country can trigger a reputational crisis in another.

Two Australian Olympic swimmers, in the USA for training, visited a Californian shooting range and had a photograph taken of themselves posing gangster-style with guns.  Most Americans wouldn’t think twice about it, but when the photo was posted on Facebook, it created a crisis for the two swimmers.

Many Australians regarded the photo as silly and immature, but a noisy cadre of commentators called for the swimmers to be banned from the Olympics, and Swimming Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee found  themselves facing a reputational crisis.

Swimming Australia was already under question for reinstating Nick D’Arcy, who was booted off the 2008 Olympic Team for assaulting a team-mate, while fellow swimmer  Kenrick Monk had created headlines after lying to police about being the victim of a hit and run.

Australian Olympic Chief Nick Green called the latest gun-toting photos “foolish and inappropriate” and ordered them taken down. “One of the questions,” he said, “is have they brought themselves into disrepute, or have they brought the Australian team into disrepute.” It was an excellent question, but sports administrators failed to adequately respond to the predictable storm of media and online protest, and left it to others to comment.

On one hand swimming legend Dawn Fraser who offered the unhelpful response that “boys will be boys.”   By contrast the influential Sydney Morning Herald called D’Arcy “the embodiment of the modern sporting idiot” and said such behaviour made him unfit to represent his country. Yes, shooting is an Olympic sport, but gun ownership in Australia is heavily controlled and there is a low public tolerance of personal firearms.

Meanwhile the two swimmers appeared to lack adequate counsel on what to say.  Nick D’Arcy trotted out the classic non-apology which every crisis expert says to avoid. “The photos were just a bit of fun. If anyone’s been offended, obviously I deeply apologise.” Where were the experienced minders who should have been advising on a more sincere response?

The Australian Olympic Committee finally announced its decision, labelling D’Arcy and Monk “repeat offenders who had shown poor judgement in their decision-making.” And the penalty?  The two swimmers will have to come home immediately after their events rather than staying on in London, and are banned off social media. Then, after almost a week of delay, Swimming Australia said they had reminded the duo of their responsibilities but would take no further action.

But what about the undoubted damage to the reputation of both Swimming Australia and the Olympic Committee?

Regardless of whether the “punishment fits the crime” in this case – or whether any punishment at all was called for – it’s a reminder that perception differs greatly between cultures. It is also a reminder that, irrespective of culture, proactive issue management demands prompt, decisive leadership, which was patently absent in this case.

Tony Jaques is Director of Issue Outcomes, a full-service crisis management firm serving clients across PanAsia.

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