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Craig McLachlan, Don Bourke, Tiger Woods - Lessons in Crisis Mismanagement

Tracey James - Sunday, January 13, 2019

Craig McLachlan: Crisis Mismanagement 101

Last week, Victoria Police charged actor Craig McLachlan with nine counts of assault, seven of them indecent. So, what's this to do with Technology Marketing? Well, if someone makes public claims about you or your company, there are two ways to react and only one works. This blog post shows you the difference.    

The Beginning - January 2018

Below, I chart how the drama unfolded and show how McLachlan's crisis management problems started on day one and compounded. I also 'touch on' Don Bourke, a catalyst for claims against McLachlan and Tiger Woods, who took a totally different approach - one that worked. Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey make cameo appearances too. If you'd like to skip straight to what works, scroll down to The 2 Ways That Work.

Oddly, my original post was almost exactly a year ago. On January 8, 2018 the ABC 7.30 Report featured three female actors who claimed that McLachlan had indecently assaulted them during the 2014 season of The Rocky Horror Show

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

It was compelling TV: the three actors appeared articulate and sure of themselves, and their stories were specific, detailed and corroborating. McLachlan’s response was rapid: the allegations were utterly and entirely false, ‘baseless’ and ‘simple inventions, perhaps made for financial reasons, perhaps to gain notoriety.’

Within 24 hours of McLachlan's denial and counter-claim, one of his accusers, Christie Whelan-Browne, made her thoughts clear, again on 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 then two weeks before McLachlan spoke again.  

With his partner (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 image stands in stark contrast to that of the calculated and manipulative predator his accusers describe.

A month later, McLachlan filed a defamation suit against the Herald, the ABC and one of the three actors, Christie Whelan Browne, seeking $6.5 million in special damages, claiming the stories about him were untrue and had damaged his reputation and mental health. (After the very recent criminal charges, McLachlan has successfully had the defamation suit delayed. At this rate, these twin issues could be strangling his career for 3 years at lest). 

The Aussie Catalyst   

The sexual harassment accusations came at a bad time for McLachlan, as they followed serious revelations about another Aussie showbiz personality, Don Burke, and Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

(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.’ 

Damage and Age

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

McLachlan's situation is totally different; he's 53 years old and, until a year ago, was riding an incredible late career wave. He must know that, if he doesn't handle this crisis well, that wave could crash all over him. On February 2 last year, he followed up his denials with a defamation action against Christie Whelan-Browne,  the ABC and Fairfax.

Clearly, the number of allegations against against McLachlan is a fraction of those against Burke. There are just three accusers of McLachlan, (compared to Burke's 250), since an internal investigation into behaviour on the Dr Blake set found evidence of a 'bawdy and crude culture' but not sexual harassment. I am talking numbers here only; I do not equate the two men, their behaviour or imply any guilt on McLachlan's side.   

Strange Bedfellows: Raunch & Contrition

McLachlan's denials and counter-accusations were predictable. However, considering the The Rocky Horror Show is raunchy and sexualised, perhaps a different approach may have served him better. He could have:  

  • 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 behavioural counseling and gone through with it.         

Tiger Woods: Fallen Star Rises 

Woods took a different tack, won sympathy, support and enjoyed a speedy return to grace (if not to golfing success).

Tiger Woods had personal problems, too, back in 2010. In his case, he cheated on his wife, but an unexpected 121 women came forward reporting intimate encounters with Woods. 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.

I'm not equating Woods and McLachlan or their alleged behaviours, but I do compare their approaches to handling public accusations.

(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.’

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 an upside. 

The Hollywood Catalyst 

Harvey Weinstein was the snowball that became 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, after deciding against taking action in 2014.  Here too, I am 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 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.’ I'm not equating Spacey or his alleged deeds with McLachlan, but am comparing responses.     

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 has made a mistake:

  • Accept that there's an issue to face (don't hide and hope it will go away; it won't)              
  • Act quickly. If it's a physical disaster, get to the site and assess the situation with expert help; if it's not, get expert advice, prepare what you'll say and book a media spot  
  • Show that you're responding and in control, even if you don't have much to go on 
  • Don’t try to cover up what happened. This will only make things worse 
  • Don't attack the claimants or make out their claims are false or insignificant. This will only make them more determined to bury you.  
  • Don't accept responsibility but do take remedial action:   
    • If it's a business crisis, make the action specific and credible. Don't fire a hapless employee or order a meaningless internal enquiry; no one will believe you. 
    • If it's personal, get specific therapy from a credible provider; most people (even juries in murder trials) can forgive an addiction or illness; few will forgive a liar.
    BTW, Richard Branson, who's handled a few crises in his time, has only four rules;  three are covered above and he adds a vital fourth: 'stay calm'. You bet. If you don't, you won't be fit to do anything.                                                        

If the claims are 100% false: 

  • And you have clear evidence and credible witnesses willing to attest to this under oath, an immediate denial is the best option. The onus is then on the other party to prove their claims.  

Crisis - What Crisis?

Crisis Management is marketing module we all hope we'll 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 variation of crisis management, from someone whose reputation was under attack long before he took the top job which he still holds. 

'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 need a hand marketing your Technology - not just handling crises - 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. I still love it.

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