Recently a strong community backlash forced the cancellation of a scheme to put black-clad officers of Australian Border Force on Melbourne streets checking visas.
The Government reacted by saying it was a big misunderstanding and named the culprit – a poorly worded media release cleared at a ‘low level in the organisation’.
Border Force media release – right thing but the wrong way
This media release did all what media releases are supposed to do. It captured attention. Unfortunately it was the wrong sort of attention and spiraled off into a media and social media storm, street protests and public ridicule for Border Force. And all of this for an organisation that only started on 1 July.
In response, the Force’s media release processes are being reviewed and presumably the poor intern who wrote the offending release has been counseled.
As media releases go the Border Force one was pretty bad. Its tone was menacing and the wording opened the door for misinterpretation. Yet it is far from the worst media release ever issued by an Australian Government.
42-word release shocks the nation
That dubious honour probably goes to the Chifley Labor Government which issued a media release, sixty years ago, that created alarm, furor and shock, damaged its reputation and eventually played a part in its downfall.
Following the Second World War Prime Minister and Treasurer Ben Chifley wanted to nationalise Australia’s nine private banks leaving the Commonwealth Bank as the sole banking organisation in Australia. In effect everyone had to bank Commonwealth. He hoped to fulfil a long-held Labor commitment and create a key lever by which the Government could manage the country’s post war recovery.
On 16 August 1947 Cabinet unanimously agreed to nationalise the banks. Chifley’s Press Secretary then issued a 42-word press release announcing the plan. The release caught the Canberra Press Gallery, the Australian public and the banking industry by complete surprise. There had been little to no prior preparation of the public mood and the announcement proved an enormous political, economic and industrial shock.
Perth’s Daily News (Perth) reported:
“Mr. Chifley’s 40-word announcement on Bank Nationalisation … profoundly shocked the nation not alone by its importance, but also by the apparently casual way in which a matter of such national gravity was treated.”
Australia’s biggest PR campaign
In the weeks following the release, the Government added to community concern by failing to provide additional information or to reassure the public about its intentions. Naturally the private banks slammed the proposal and launched what would become a two year long campaign to oppose the move. Banks poured money and organisational talent into political parties, markets and community groups opposing the move. They created a campaign so decisive it helped defeat the Chifley Government in the 1949 Federal Election.
Up to this point in history the banks’ efforts were the largest, best organised and most expensive PR campaign ever seen in Australia.
Yes, the Border Force media performance may have been clumsy but it is unlikely to have the same dire results Chifley’s 42-word media release had for his Government.
The 1947 banking campaign is a chapter in my upcoming book: ‘Six PR campaigns that changed Australia and what they teach us now.’