Lessons from the rugby field

Crouch, touch, pause… ENGAGE! 

For anyone not familiar with Rugby Union (I know, I know – but it’s the worldwide web) this is the four-stage procedure used to ensure that the delicate dance known as the scrum is started safely and legally.

It’s the ‘pause’ before the ‘engage’ I’d like to discuss here. In a PR context, of course.

Two incidents this week have highlighted how important it is to take stock of your longer-term communication and reputational objectives before rushing into the media spotlight to take opportunistic pot-shots at competitors or political foes.

New Zealand’s governing National Party announced on Tuesday a significant U-turn on its proposal to allow mining in national parks. Having previously been pressured to reduce dramatically the area of protected land it was hoping to open up to mining, Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee canned the idea altogether, citing public resistance.

As you’d expect, National’s political foes waded in boots and all. But instead of taking a second or two of ‘quiet time’ to figure out how best to take long-term advantage of the situation, it seems the heat of the moment and the lure of the cameras were all too much for Labour Party leader Phil Goff. His voice cracking with excitement, he roundly condemned National for reversing itself and for failing to deliver on yet another wealth-generating policy “dream”.

Why, instead of taking cheap pot-shots at National for changing its mind, did he not go into statesman mode?

Hold on just a tick. Isn’t this the same Phil Goff trailing so desperately in the polls and needing to demonstrate statesmanship, leadership and vision? And wasn’t this reversal exactly what the Labour Party had been calling for – no mining in national parks? So why, instead of taking cheap pot-shots at National for changing its mind, did he not go into statesman mode?

How easy it would have been for him to congratulate the government for finally deciding it might be a good idea to listen to the voice of the people. His people, he might have reminded us – while pointing out that Labour and its political allies had fought a long and arduous rear-guard action to bring this matter to a satisfactory end.

See what I mean? Instead of being the truculent schoolboy shaking his fist at the headmaster, a two-second pause for thought before pitching headlong into the scrum could have turned him into the hero of the hour. Instead, as it was, National scored the brownie points for having ‘listened to the electorate’.

The second eyebrow-raiser was the Shirley Sherrod affair. On Monday Ms Sherrod, a US Agriculture department official who happens to be black, was summarily dismissed from her post and roundly condemned by civil rights group NAACP for allegedly making racially charged remarks about a white farmer. Turns out Ms Sherrod’s vilification was based on a doctored video clip distributed by right-wing US conservatives as ‘evidence’ of anti-white racism in President Barack Obama’s government and within the NAACP, an organisation seen as Democratic-leaning.

I’m not talking here about the way her employer and the NAACP jumped to conclusions and mistreated the poor woman. I’m talking about the hot-headedness of whoever in the conservative right decided it would be a good idea to use the doctored clip in the first place. Again, two seconds of forward thinking would have shown it to be a terrible idea. Why? Because they would have known the clip was doctored and should have known that the unrelenting news spin cycle, with its constant demand for fresh meat and wine, would inevitably expose this fact. So they traded 12 hours of bogus character assassination for a massive blow to their own credibility that will now last indefinitely. Not a good move. And again, their erstwhile target emerged the ultimate winner in the court of public opinion.

So let’s take a leaf from the rugby rule book and pause before we engage. Pot shots aren’t always the best shots.

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