When Australia woke up on Sunday morning, they woke up to a mess. It must have been much like a pet-owner waking up to find that the dog has eaten the scatter cushions and then vomited everywhere – including on the cat, who has then ripped the sofa to shreds in frustration.
For those who don't take an interest in sport, the Australian captain Steve Smith confessed in an interview on Saturday that he had conspired with "the leadership team" to tamper with the ball in order to try (unsuccessfully) to give themselves an advantage in a Test match that was rapidly slipping away from them. In an unpretty display, they gave the job to Cameron Bancroft, the youngest member of the team.
The Australian cricket authorities now find themselves in a tight spot. If they had contacted me for advice (which inexplicably they failed to do – perhaps they don't have my new phone number), my advice would have been along the following lines...
Often the head of the organisation appears to be sorry that they were CAUGHT rather than being sorry about what was done'
1. Get ahead of the story
The first thing one needs to do in an icky situation like this is to get all of the facts from members of the organisation. The last thing one wants is more facts dribbling out and having to improvise a response as one does so.
A superb example of this not being done was the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (in many ways the way BP America handled this was an outstanding case study in how not to handle a PR crisis). Among many glorious mistakes made, BP America allowed a situation where other parties revealed the extent of the spill. This made it impossible for their PR team to control the conversation, and made it appear that they were concealing things.
As a result the Australian cricket big cheeses will need to find out exactly what happened and who knew and did what. Only then can they move forward. They need to know which players formed the brains-trust that came up with the farcical plan to openly tamper with the ball while hundreds of thousands of people were watching in live HD. Did coach Darren Lehman know?
If not, why hasn't he condemned the incident? Is there any truth to allegations that Bancroft did the same sort of thing during the Ashes series? Or to gossip about the team cheating in other areas, like use of the TV appeal system?
If their team have been doing their job, this will already have happened.
2. Be genuinely sorry
This may seem obvious (mainly because it is), but surprisingly often, the powerful and arrogant people who head up organisations don't do this. Often the head of the organisation appears to be sorry that they were caught rather than being sorry about what was done.
I have already heard Australian cricket commentators foolishly saying that "everyone does it" and that "the game in general needs to address this issue". Cricket Australia would be wise not to follow this route. They've been caught red-handed, and denying this fact will only inflame the reaction.
As soon as they are clear what the problem is, they need to take steps to fix that problem and let the cricket-watching public know exactly what they are doing'
We all recall the United Airlines PR debacle around an incident where a passenger was dragged from his seat after a seating mix-up and seemed to have been beaten, tasered and generally jumped-upon by the time he emerged from the plane in handcuffs.
Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United appeared to have been genuinely surprised that he wasn't allowed to throw this passenger into his personal dungeon (probably situated below Munoz' personal golf course), and then proceeded to claim that the passenger had been "unruly" and thus deserved what he got. The backlash was intense. And the wholehearted apology followed. But it was all too late. The damage had been thoroughly done.
Amusingly, just a few months earlier Munoz had been named "communicator of the year" by PR Week. After his missteps in handling "seat-gate", the publication admitted they had erred in handing him this glorious title, and Munoz' career at United stalled somewhat.
Darren Lehman has said nothing at all, it seems – let alone apologised. This is very strange indeed. And the fact that Steve Smith has said that he thinks he should continue as captain after this test match, indicates that at least some of the Australian hierarchy seem very tempted to go at least part of the way down the same muddy and poorly lit road as United Airlines.
3. Actually fix the problem
And keep the public informed about the steps you are taking to do this. During the ghastly Tylenol crisis in the U.S. during the 80s, a few dozen containers of the headache medication were tampered with and laced with poison. The team at Tylenol had a situation to deal with that makes the one facing Cricket Australia look like a walk in the park. A walk in the park on a public holiday. In midsummer, whilst being serenaded by Scandinavian supermodels.
The Tylenol team's reaction was, however, impeccable. They immediately pulled every single bottle of the product in North America off the shelves. They halted all their production plants. They designed a new tamper-proof container and relaunched the product in these bottles. And they kept the public informed every step of the way.
Cricket Australia needs to follow the same procedure. As soon as they are clear what the problem is, they need to take steps to fix that problem, and let the cricket-watching public know exactly what they are doing.
The Australian cricket team is a brand. A brand that deserves to be protected and looked after during this unsavoury period. Only a swift and honest response can do this. We wait with partially bated breath to see if this is forthcoming.
Almost all of the things that need to be done during a PR crisis are, of course, simple common sense. But in a crisis, common sense can often be in very short supply.