Why Nine and Country Road Group must move beyond reactive PR

In the same week that the federal government’s consent campaign was launched, two prominent Australian companies have made headlines for facilitating toxic workplace cultures that sweep bullying and sexual harassment claims under the rug. 

First, was the news that more than a dozen former and current staff members from the Nine Network have made allegations of verbal or physical harassment against the company’s former news boss, Darren Wick. 

Then it was fashion conglomerate Country Road Group that made headlines after staff made claims of sexual harassment, bullying, and racism, with many claiming that the group failed to take action after receiving the complaints.

Unsurprisingly, both companies have since gone into damage control mode. Both have brought in top executives to address staff and offer open-door policies for complaints, and both have announced external investigations into the matter. 

Nine’s ‘independent investigation’ however is questionable, given it is being conducted by a former employee turned consultant. But more on that later…

This response makes sense from an optics perspective. Optics matter to staff, future hires, customers, and shareholders. Both companies appear to be taking steps to better understand what went wrong and how it can be fixed from a cultural point of view. 

The problem is that while optics are important to a business, they aren’t everything. 

Staff need to trust that those responsible for past failures aren’t leading the cleanup. After all, how can the executives who allowed these alleged instances of abuse to occur – whether it was through ignorance or indifference – be trusted to understand what’s right or wrong?

Or are they potentially too desensitised or too far removed and at risk of diminishing the seriousness of it?

Even Nine’s own PR rep, Victoria Buchan, has been quoted as saying “That’s just Wickie” in response to claims against Darren Wick. If this is the attitude of the company’s leaders, can they really be trusted to lead the charge on this issue?

In Nine’s case, their decision to appoint a former employee to conduct their external, independent investigation only feeds into the idea that they are doing it from an optics perspective, not from a place of seeking genuine, lasting cultural change.

This former employee turned independent investigator may well be the best person for the job. They might be a brilliant professional with integrity and the willingness to objectively assess the wrongdoings of their former employer. But their link to Nine could make the media, the public, and most importantly, the company’s own staff, have little confidence that will be the case.

This is a situation where optics must be paired with substance and common sense. Addressing staff from the very top of the organisation, flying executives in to directly deal with the issue, and offering counselling to staff who have been affected are good steps to take, but they aren’t groundbreaking.

As a business, it’s your duty of care to ensure the psychological safety of your staff. We can hope that this is the start of a healthy and safe company culture for both Nine and Country Road Group, but we can’t pat them on the back and say they’re going above and beyond to make a meaningful difference.

If they were, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. 

For any business – but particularly for companies as large as these two – there should have been systems, ethics, and a broader culture already in place to address claims like these the moment they were made.

This includes encouraging people to say something if and when these incidents occur and creating a culture where they can feel confident that speaking up will be taken seriously and won’t impact their role.

The real test is proving to shareholders, staff, customers, the media, and the general public just how seriously they’re taking this. 

That means not having a token scapegoat just to show that heads are rolling.

That means not making drastic changes in an attempt to change the news cycle and get people to move on.

What it does mean is facilitating deep cultural and systemic change within the organisation.

It means adding roles that are specifically designed to safeguard staff from unhealthy workplace relationships and experiences.

It means providing extensive details about the findings of the investigations and what will be done to ensure something of this magnitude will not happen again.

When dealing with hidden misconduct, including NDAs and resignations, transparency is paramount. 

Both of these stories are going to remain in the media for some time. The news cycle is not going to change because both companies have promised an investigation with little detail about what that entails. 

It’s not going to go away because a couple of people lose their jobs in the next week or two.

It’s too late for both companies to have a proactive PR approach to this issue. 

But it’s not too late for them to move forward with transparency and accountability at the forefront of their communications. They must proactively communicate the steps being taken beyond announcing a quick investigation and token scalp, and those steps must be substantive. 

This approach is the only one that will rebuild trust and restore confidence. 

If they fail to do this, the focus will move beyond the company culture and start to hone in on individual staff members. They have just a few more days left to start feeding the beast before the beast starts feeding on them.

The media and the public will never be satisfied with information gaps on stories of this magnitude – it’s far too important and provocative. It’s a topic that causes rage and upset with just a single headline, and we are at a turning point in our culture where the media and the public are hesitant to turn a blind eye to the internal failures of large corporations.

It’s time for the Nine Network and the Country Road Group to step up and be more proactive, transparent, and willing to change. The time for being reactive is long past.

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