Australian Border Force (ABF) is only weeks old yet its first major public relations effort has been a disaster.
Yesterday a strong community and media backlash quashed plans for Operation Fortitude where ABF officers were to join Victorian Police and other enforcement officers to crack down on anti-social behaviour in Melbourne.
The ABF’s role appears to have been to check on people overstaying visas.
Putting darkly clad public servants on city streets to check immigration papers was never going to be popular. There is no Australian precedent and while compliance raids have taken place for years previously they were targeted at specific, suspected illegalities and announced after the fact. Operation Fortitude was conceived as a public display of force.
Of course it was not helped by a poorly worded media release implying menace, the Victorian Government withdrawing its support and blame being laid on someone ‘low level in the organisation’. So far the responsible Minister, Peter Dutton, has said nothing.
What followed was a social media storm, street protests, public ridicule and concern from human rights advocates. Even conservative media slammed the plan.
It is a bad start for a brand new agency and it is hard to see how the ABF’s leadership can regain public confidence. This weekend the agency’s PR team are probably working overtime to develop a remediation strategy which could include considerations like:
- The Minister and the ABF Commissioner jointly and publicly apologising for their misunderstanding of community sentiment. Both overreached because while Australians are generally tolerant and often support Government policy in the immigration space, they never like action that smacks of being authoritarian – a throw back to our convict past perhaps?
- Both leaders might also take the community into their confidence to explain the extent of visa overstaying in Australia – particularly in Melbourne – and the problems it creates in the community and economy. Most people (including me) are unfamilar with the issues and more information would enlighten us to the need for action.
- After the last 24 hours mending fences with the media must be a priority. It is time to move reporters from an attitude which is now close to scorn to something more supportive. An off the record – and deep – media briefing would be helpful in highlighting compliance issues and ABF plans. But it must be honest and it must be open.
- Lastly the incident has dented the credibility of the Minister and the new Commissioner. It is very difficult to believe both did not know what was planned and each clearly failed to appreciate community feeling. Australians respect the Government officials who work on the front lines of our national security. A sounder strategy starting now, would be to tell the Border Force story through the work of the ordinary Australian men and women who staff our ports, airports, sea lanes and waterways around the clock each day. At this stage they probably command more respect.
A remediation strategy needs to include a social media plan. A good place to start would be to extend beyond the current business hours of the ABF Twitter account and relax the restrictions on comments on its Facebook page.
Repairing reputations takes time. And it can’t be based on bluster: rather it must be underpinned by humility, a willingness to admit error and a commitment to more open communications – qualities often in short supply in governments these days.