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Craig McLachlan - Lessons in Crisis Mismanagement

Tracey James - Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Craig McLachlan: Crisis Mismanagement 101

What has Craig McLachlan's sexual harassment scandal got to do with marketing in High Tech? Plenty. If someone makes public claims about you or your company, there are few ways to manage the crisis. We compare them - and hope you never need any of them.  (Image: Janie Barrett. Source: SMH).

(If you want to skip directly to the ways that work, scroll down.)

Star Behaving Badly?

On January 8, 2018, a joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC alleged that actor ‘Craig McLachlan had indecently assaulted, sexually harassed and bullied 3 female co-stars in a 2014 production of the (Rocky Horror) show.’

McLachlan’s response was that these allegations were utterly and entirely false, ‘baseless’ and ‘simple inventions, perhaps made for financial reasons, perhaps to gain notoriety.’

(Scene from the Rocky Horror Show. Image: Brian Geach)

All 3 women appeared articulate and sure of themselves, and their stories were specific, detailed and corroborating.

Within 24 hours of McLachlan's denial and counter-claim, one of his accusers, Christie Whelan-Browne, made it clear what she thought.  

She told ABC's 7.30 'I don’t want to be associated with Craig McLachlan for the rest of my life. You don’t do it for money... There is no money to be made.' A few days later, more accusations surfaced, relating to behaviour on the same show and on ABC TV's Dr Blake series.

Two weeks later

It was two weeks before McLachlan spoke again.  

With his partner, orch­estra conductor Vanessa Scammell, at his side he told the Daily Telegraph that his reputation had been ‘annihilated,’ vowing ‘to fight to clear his name’ and claiming that ‘the truth will come out.’ He added: ‘Does being cheeky and naughty equate with being a bully? No, it does not.’

He said he prided himself on building ‘a wonderful, inclusive, safe work environment, where even the little fellow who has to carry the sandbags for the camera department, I make him feel like it's his show.’ That's in stark contrast to the calculated and manipulative predator his accusers describe.

The Aussie Catalyst 

The sexual harassment accusations had unfortunate timing for McLachlan; they followed serious revelations about another Aussie showbiz personality, Don Burke.

(Don Burke. Image: BT Magazine)

According to this ABC report, former Nine Network CEO Sam Chisholm described Burke as a ‘grub’ and a ‘disgrace’. Chisholm’s successor David Leckie said, ‘I've been trying to think of Harvey Weinstein-type people, and the only one I can ever come up with is Burke … He's a horrible, horrible, horrible man. He's a dreadful, dreadful piece of work … he was a really dirty old man.’

Veteran journalist Tracey Spicer told the ABC that she heard from 470 people after asking for stories of sexual harassment in the workplace. She said, ‘The first response is still to shut these allegations down rather than dealing with them in an appropriate manner …’ Despite 250 women coming forward, Burke didn’t just deny all the allegations; he said they were ‘baseless’ claims of ex-employees with grudges.

Then followed a statement that tops McLachlan’s little fellow and the sandbags insight: ‘The bitter irony is that I have had a life-long opposition to sexism and misogyny. Burke's Backyard was a lone bastion of anti-misogyny from its inception in 1987.’ 

Fame is Power

Did Burke really think anyone would believe that?  And what of Chisholm and Leckie sitting on their hands, given their condemnation of Burke? Staff working on the show said that Nine Network management turned a blind eye and failed to act on their complaints.’  

The Drum reported that ‘Nine’s former head of news and current affairs Peter Meakin claimed he ‘never received formal complaints about Burke but heard rumours second-hand.’ Why didn’t he ask some of Burke’s team and establish the facts? 

Burke’s Backyard was Nine’s highest rating show, so no one was about to pull him into line. And why didn’t more of Burke’s staff lodge more formal complaints or talk to the media? Because they risked losing their jobs, which is why McLachlan's 3 accusers say they didn't come forward in 2014.

Damage and age

Although Burke is no longer working, his reputation is completely shredded.

Yet McLachlan is 52 years old and, until last month, was riding a huge late career wave. If he doesn't handle this crisis well, that wave could crash all over him, and he knows it.  In fact, on February 2, 2018, McLachlan launched defamation action against Christie Whelan-Browne,
the ABC and Fairfax.

Clearly, the number of allegations against against McLachlan is a fraction of that against Burke, and we do not equate the two men or their alleged behaviour.

In fact, there re now just 3 accusers of McLachlan, (compared to Burke's 250 claims), since an internal investigation into behaviour on the Dr Blake set found evidence of a 'bawdy and crude culture' but not sexual harassment.   

Strange Bedfellows: Raunch & Contrition

With his denials and counter-accusations, McLachlan response was usual and predictable. Yet, we all know the Rocky Horror Show is raunchy and sexualised, so couldn't McLachlan have capitalised on this? If he had:

  • Described the intimacy common in theatre troupes - and how accentuated it was in this one. 
  • Claimed to be ‘in character’ so much at times, that the line between on-stage and backstage became blurred.
  • Apologised for crossing the line, if he had unknowingly done so.
  • Said he was seeking counseling (behavioural not legal),

wouldn't he have angered his accusers less?    

Tiger Woods: Fallen Star Rises 

Another, who took the opposite tack, won sympathy, support and enjoyed a speedy return to grace.

Tiger Woods had some personal problems, too, back in 2010. In his case, he cheated on his wife, but an unexpected 121 women came forward to back this up. Numbers like this make it hard to claim innocence with any credibility, and Woods knew it.

Woods took the opposite approach to McLachlan: he admitted that he had a problem, framed it as an addiction and sought treatment. After a short period of silence, Woods made a public apology (described by the media as ‘a nationally televised mea culpa’) and enrolled in sex rehab.

(Tiger Woods. Image: VIA)

In his apology, Woods also talked about the impact of his transgressions on his charitable Tiger Woods Foundation, and apologised to its staff and corporate sponsors. ‘I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you,’ he said. ‘I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did. I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position.’

We're also not equating these two men or their alleged behaviour, but we do compare their approaches handling to public accusations. 

A Career Resumes

As a result, the sponsors of Wood's foundation didn't jump ship, even if some like AT&T and Accenture severed ties with Woods himself. And if the foundation staff hired by him thought his transgressions embarrassing, they haven't said so.

The washup? Woods was back on the pro-circuit a few months later.

'Scandalized celebrities certainly make comebacks,’ Kiran Aditham wrote on adweek.com, 2 years after Woods’ fall from grace. ‘They repent, they reinvent themselves, and they come back better—and with more valuable brands—than ever.’ Who knows, depending on how events pan out, McLachlan may find precisely this. 

The Hollywood Catalyst 

Harvey Weinstein was the snowfall that cracked and caused an avalanche: over 80 women have come forward so far, accusing Weinstein of trading roles in his movies for sexual favours. Once again, denial was the first response.

Weinstein's representative told USA TODAY: ‘Mr. Weinstein vehemently denies these accusations … It’s ridiculous that anyone would believe these talented women, academy award winners, provided sexual favours in exchange for roles they earned based on their talent and brilliant work. It’s simply not true.’

In fact, it was the Harvey Weinstein revelations that, according to McLachlan's accusers, prompted them to contact each other, having decided not to take action in 2014.  Here too, were are not equating McLachlan with Weinstein, the man or his alleged deeds.

Another Approach that Didn't Work

Kevin Spacey tried a different approach when actor Anthony Rapp accused him of making sexual advances toward him when he was just 14. First, he offered a conditional apology: ‘If I did behave then as [Rapp] describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behaviour.’

Then he came out of the closet on Twitter, writing that he’d loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout his life, adding: ‘I choose now to live as a gay man.’

(Kevin Spacey. Image: Daily Mirror)

The LA Times summed up Hollywood’s reaction this way: ‘The impression that Spacey … would finally publicly embrace his gay identity only in response to a story alleging predatory behaviour toward a minor left many outraged -- not only by the apparent attempt at deflection, but also the inadvertent conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia.’ We aren't equating Spacey or his alleged deeds with McLachlan, either. 

The 2 Ways that Work

In a crisis, you only get one chance to put things right, so it’s crucial to get it right. Here's the short list:

  • If the claims are true and you (or your company) have made a mistake, be willing to face up. 
  • When the soft stuff hits the fan, turn the fan off. Turning it up will only make things messier.
  • Don’t try to cover up what happened. This will only make things worse.
  • Don’t attack the claimants. This will only make them more determined to bury you.
  • Accept responsibility and apologise to the claimants. (If it's a personal crisis, add your family, friends and employers).
  • Take remedial action. If it's a business crisis, make it specific and credible (not firing a hapless employee or ordering a meaningless enquiry; no one will believe you). If personal, get specific therapy from a credible provider; most people (even juries in murder trials) can forgive an illness; few will forgive a proven liar.

As for Craig McLachlan, I hope he is innocent because, by the time his reputation has been dragged though the courts, (2 of his original 3 accusers have taken their claims to Victoria Police, to which he has now added his defamation action), there may be little of it left.  

Speaking of innocence, if the claims against you or your company are 100% false, and you have the weight of evidence and witness numbers on your side, the way that works is number 2: a short, immediate denial. The onus is then on the other party to prove their claims, which appears to be McLachlan position.  

Crisis - What Crisis?

Crisis Management is a module in marketing we all hope we never need. It's tempting to skip it, but I say, 'do so at your peril'. You never know what lies ahead. People and technology can be unpredictable.  

In closing, here's another example of crisis mismanagement, from someone whose reputation was under attack even before he took the top job.

'You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write [about you] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass’ (Donald Trump).

Enough said.

PS: If you want a hand with any aspect of marketing your High Tech business, you know where we are.

Tracey James
Chief Executive

I used to be a Biotech researcher but got sick of acid holes in my clothing. After switching to selling the equipment I'd used in the lab, I discovered marketing and loved it. I've been marketing technologies ever since - and still love it.

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