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Wow, Gladys. That was one hell of a resignation.
 

While it was an announcement that caught many by surprise, there were some prize-winning moves from one of Australia’s favourite politicians. 

There’s a lot to learn for CEOs and those of us who support them to lead and communicate. 

This opinion piece unpacks one part of the communication strategy and tactics deployed in the New South Wales Premier’s resignation speech and communication strategy.  

Why use a political example? 

You’d be right to ask if NSW politics is the right place to look for examples of good governance, leadership or communication.  

ICAC doesn’t think so. We’ll hear more about that for the ten days from yesterday, 18 October when hearings started. 

In stark contrast to ICAC, the NSW electorate appeared, overwhelmingly, to back the former Premier. 

Her popularity and credibility make Gladys Berejiklian worth a closer look, as a leader and communicator, for those of us in financial services. 

Beyond "Gladys", politics, even at the state level in Australia, is where we see PR, stakeholder engagement, or perception management played for keeps. It’s like Squid Game (a real game in South Korea) or the Hunger Games version of financial services PR and crisis management. We’re playing poker with matchsticks while our political leaders are playing for lives, as well as to keep their approval ratings and jobs. 

It follows that media and social media are even more important to politicians than they are to businesses. Without shareholders and few objective measures of success, politics is the ultimate popularity game, hence the ultimate PR or persuasion game. 

The binary “win or fail” metric in politics is the result on election day.  

Win, and you get your hands on the levers of power.  

Lose badly enough, and you not only lose power; you’re out of a job, lose your team and sometimes your reputation. 

While US politics is the ultimate arena thanks to its sheer scale and sophistication, there’s still plenty worth watching closer to home.  

So what are the crisis management “classics”?

In Gladys’s resignation, there are some “classics” straight from the BlueChip (and many others’) crisis management playbook.  

My “favourite five” are: 
1. “Be better” or raising the standard  
2. Pre-empting
3. Stealing thunder
4. Taking ownership
5. Contestability 

The good news for us, if not for our former Premier, is that these techniques are equally as effective in your hands as our political leaders. 

My favourite five & how to use them 

You can think of these as best practices.  

They can be part of your crisis prevention or preparation, used in live crisis management, or help rebuild reputation after a crisis.   

This fortnight I’m analysing Gladys’s farewell in terms of what CEOs and financial services executives can learn from Gladys and adopt when it matters most. 

1. “Be better” or raising the standard  

One clever strategy, too often not used in financial services, is to go beyond the expectations others have, or that you might have set out yourself, to set a higher standard despite the wrongdoing you’re accused of or have committed. 

Gladys had set a standard for her ministers to stand aside if under investigation by an authority. By resigning, not just standing aside, she could seize the moral high ground and be better than the current standard

It’s a smart move and well-illustrated in wealth management by BT Financial Group in 2018. They moved ahead of the industry, competitors and regulators to remove grandfathered commissions for financial advisers.  

Like all good “be better” strategies, BT’s move was: 

1. Just ahead of being pushed  
2. Enabled them to position their actions as selfless leadership in the greater good 
3. Involved a significant cost ($40m) to the party making the gesture, and 
4. Benefited a less powerful stakeholder, retail customers 
5. Finally, as a bonus, it came at a cost to an unpopular group, those financial advisers still receiving a commission. 

It’s conceivable that the bonus in the Premier’s resignation was stealing something from ICAC – costing the Commission their “peak attention” moment. 

That’s the moment we see high profile public figures cross-examined, exposed under fire and sometimes disgraced in public hearings of Royal Commissions, Senate Estimates, Parliamentary Committees, ICAC and the like.  

It is the moment when eyeballs, media coverage, and click-through rates peak and community hatred is turned against witnesses as effectively as in Salem, McCarthyist America and Australia’s Royal Commissions.  

Deserved or not, scapegoating of high-profile witnesses does bring attention to alleged or actual misconduct. Such public processes use a well-established formula to focus attention on their subject. It’s something like this. 

Downfall = (villain’s bad deeds + harm done to victim) narrative arc x (media + social media) 

 If audience attention is as valuable as the media, business and politicians think they are, ICAC lost big time when their next subject took herself off centre stage and their work out of the limelight with her. 

Full credit to Gladys for jumping while also citing higher moral ground reasons – the good of the state - for doing so. 

This only works if you have a bank of trust to start with, and your own self-interest and motives are clear.  

Something to think about inside our own firms as we consider which strategy to use when facing accusations, whether factual or spurious.

2. Pre-empting 

The best type of crisis management is the type that foresees and prevents the crisis before. Do that well enough, and you start to pre-empt a situation, crisis or reputation risk before others have even spotted the early warning signs and begun to think about “prevention”.  

The ultimate pre-emptive move for an investigative process that’s about to blow you up is to bow out, resigning before the process gets started. 

From a reputation point of view, I give full credit to Gladys for taking charge. By jumping before ICAC damaged her reputation, albeit after announcing they’d call her, the then Premier and her team controlled events and the narrative. At least for now.  

To effectively take control, the speech and strategy had to be prepared weeks or months in advance and in anticipation of, not in response to, the next move of hostile parties.  

In financial services, the same holds true. Using preemption as a crisis or issues management strategy requires taking matters into your own hands, acting boldly but not necessarily expectedly, and leading, not lagging, to move ahead of the likely path of events. 

I want to say to you; honestly, this isn’t about communication or crisis management. It’s sometimes about courageous moral leadership. 

In this example, you might accuse Gladys of resigning as purely self-preservation, but the strategy of pre-empting is often just good leadership.

That doesn't often require a resignation but it does always require some bravery. 

3. Stealing thunder 

Stealing thunder is simple – it’s telling “the” (your) story before something else does. Usually, you do this because the other party’s story won’t be sympathetic to you.  

The former Premier stole ICAC’s thunder by resigning and giving a lengthy speech which, released in full, deliberately framed the media narrative in many ways.  

These included: 

1. Characterising her leadership and legacy on her terms  
2. Placing ICAC’s move as another in a series of events driven by political adversaries 
3. Thus, leading the media towards criticism of ICAC’s timing and claim to be apolitical  
4. And positioning her decision to resign as both forced (“I had no alternative”) and about the greater good (“out of love and respect” for the people of NSW) 
5. Repeated messages about leadership as services and a commitment to doing the right thing. 

None of this framing would have “stuck” had she simply allowed the ICAC process, questioning, and resulting narrative to proceed undisturbed.  

4. Taking ownership 

Taking ownership is about taking responsibility for a solution, even if you’re not the cause of the problem. It’s often hand in hand with strategy 3 of stealing thunder or can be a version of pre-emptive action in strategy 1.   

As a leader, the ultimate and final act of responsibility, and last resort, is to resign. The basic narrative for CEOs in this situation is usually “I didn’t do this or endorse it, but it happened on my watch, so as the leader, I take responsibility for it happening, and so I have made a choice to resign.” In my experience, the CEO has likely been pushed at that stage – not always, but often.  

Taking ownership does not have to involve a resignation – it can be part of an apology, remediation or an investigation that doesn’t cost the CEO their job but does see them step up to lead the way through the issues.  

Stakeholders don’t expect perfection, but they do expect leaders to take responsibility or ownership.   

Assuming there’s no resignation required, and in the Australian financial services context, the intelligent way to execute this is to say some version of this:  

“I didn’t do this or endorse it (or I reject the allegations), but it happened (or is alleged to have happened) on my watch, so as the leader, I take responsibility for what happened. I will make sure we understand what happened, how and why, and I will take responsibility for fixing the problems or making good the damage, and for making sure this doesn’t happen again”. 

That might sound glib and cynical. But it works because it’s genuine. It owns the problem and the solution, if not the cause of the problem.  

5. Contestability 

The Premier’s resignation’s most straightforward, essential and effective tactic was to contest or dispute the negative claims.  

Allegations, accusations, implied wrongdoing are incredibly damaging to personal, professional, brand and a government’s reputation if not corrected or contested.  

You don’t have to prove your counterclaims are true for contestability to work as a strategy or tactic. But you do need to deliver with conviction, which includes mounting an effective defence that stays on the permanent record.   

The Premier spoke with conviction and passion about her integrity and her leadership at length. There was no outright denial of the likely ICAC claims already aired and that we’re yet to see in detail. It wasn’t needed because she refuted the premise of the inquiry, framed it in a political context and spoke with conviction about her substance, if not the substance of the allegations.  

“As it will be clear from the ICAC statement, the issues which it is investigating are historic matters that have already been the subject of numerous attacks on me by political opponents during the last 12 months… 

“I state categorically, I have always acted with the highest level of integrity. History will demonstrate that I have always executed my duties with the highest degree of integrity for the benefit of the people of NSW who I have had the privilege to serve… 

“Notwithstanding the challenges of the last few years and few months, in particular, I have never felt stronger nor more confident in my leadership. I have absolutely no regrets during my time in public life. At times we all stumble, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start again stronger and wiser than before. I have done this many times, as we all have.”  

Summary 

You don’t have to be a political fan or Gladys lover to learn from good communication and examples of public leadership. 

It does, ultimately, help to have done the right thing.

Whether you're a brand facing a scandal, a leader who's done something dumb at work, or you've just found out a bad thing happened on your watch, there are any number of defining moments to choose the higher road. There are, often, many ways to communicate badly and just a few to do it well.

No matter what ICAC says I think that resignation ticked a lot of boxes.

Now, for the next public chapter, back to the ICAC hearings. 

This blog was originally published in our fortnightly email, Take a beat Tuesday. To get these direct to your inbox before they're published, subscribe here

If you’d like to discuss your strategic communication call us or contact us here.  

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