Strange Times Bring Big Changes to How PR Crises Need To Be Handled

Katie Paine, CEO, Paine Publishing

In this month’s column, the two organizations we examine, Rio Tinto, the global mining conglomerate, and Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian university, couldn’t be more different.

Both have sophisticated communication protocols designed, no doubt, to avoid the sort of scandals that are currently plaguing both of them. The problem is, in 2020, those strategies don’t work.
Rio Tinto and Cultural Heritage
As a mining company, Rio Tinto has had its share of crises over the years. As a result, it has a large and sophisticated communication shop. That hasn’t stopped protestors and opponents from calling for severe penalties for the company’s recent destruction of a 45,000-year-old Australian Aboriginal heritage site so it could expand an iron ore mine.

The company’s immediate response was straight out of a best practices crisis plan. It apologized profusely, conducted an internal investigation and posted results to its site. Then, it announced that it was knocking off $5 million from the bonuses of bosses who were implicated in the report.

But in 2020, indigenous culture is more important than mining, and income inequality is why people are marching in the streets. So while the reduction in bonuses sounded good in the press release, negative reaction was swift.

The Australian Center for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), Australia’s leading shareholder advocacy group, accused Rio Tinto of shifting blame to the indigenous groups and called the fines completely inadequate: “Tens of thousands of years of cultural significance get blown up and all that goes to show for it is $7million of lost remuneration,” ACCR’s James Fitzgerald said.

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