Conspiracy or cock-up? You decide…

Happy New Year! Here’s to the next 12 months – I hope they bring us all health, happiness and hilarity.

Speaking of hilarity, I’m still shaking my head in bemusement at the latest twist in the Hanover Finance/Mark and Amanda Hotchin affair.

There can be few in New Zealand unfamiliar with the story of busted investment company Hanover Finance, the many investors who lost their shirts, and its owners Mark Hotchin and Eric Watson.

Three days ago high-profile media commentator and PR consultant Dr Brian Edwards posted on his widely-read blog an email from Hotchin’s wife Amanda, in which she lamented the ‘hate campaign’ being waged against her family by the NZ media. She drew attention to several instances of reporting which she claimed were “fabrication”. One in particular, if true, would clearly support her claim that recent coverage appears to prioritise sensationalism over accuracy.

When you start arguing that the media have got the facts wrong you’d better make darn sure that the credits column outweighs the debits.

Of course, Mrs Hotchin’s email to Dr Edwards made yet more headlines and gave the Hotchin story even longer legs. Many of the public comments about the online versions of the story boiled down to the same thought: Mrs H’s email was mere PR puffery and ill-advised PR puffery at that. Whoever had recommended the tactic to the Hotchin camp should be hanged, drawn and quartered.

I find it difficult to believe that this email was part of an orchestrated thrust to generate a little public support for the man (courtesy of his family). Anyone with more than an internship in a PR department, a remote awareness of the history behind the story and a passing knowledge of the Kiwi psyche would realise what a futile move this would be.

I do believe passionately in the importance of straightening the record, getting the facts into the public domain and establishing some context with which Joe Public can develop an opinion. I’ve said many times that an information vacuum is quickly filled by rumour, speculation, innuendo and inaccuracy.

But if the objective was to start rehabilitating the Hotchins and unpicking the blanket of villainy that’s been thrown over the Hanover directors there are many far better ways to start going about it. Like initiating at least some of the many moves that would start appeasing public opinion, and like avoiding many of the crass and insensitive behaviours that have so effectively enraged and inflamed that same opinion.

Anything less and you’re just putting lipstick on a pig.

And when you reach the point at which you can start arguing that the media have got the facts wrong you’d better make darn sure that the credits column outweighs the debits. Otherwise that strategy serves simply to fan the fire. After all, who cares if it was actually you washing the windows of the condo on the Goldy when we’re still rankling over the multi-million dollar payout your hubby awarded himself just before the balloon went up, the fact that you were holidaying in Hawaii long after Hanover’s investors started suffering, and Mark’s claim that he needed nearly $7,000 a week to support your family. Hell, most Kiwis would sacrifice an element of their reproductive equipment to enjoy a weekly payout of that proportion!

I’m old and ugly enough to believe cynically that there are any number of potential motives behind that email. Including the possibility that the good Mrs H is simply trying to put a little clear blue water between herself and her betrothed.  But, truth be told, I’d like to believe it was more cock-up than conspiracy.

A frustrated wife, a protective mother, enraged by media intrusion and public indifference to the undoubtedly (and highly relative!) straitened circumstances in which she finds herself, venting her spleen to a high profile media commentator whose most recent musings on media inadequacies had struck a chord.

I’m with Dr Edwards here on one important point. Some of the media coverage of the Hanover/Hotchin thing has been gratuitous sensationalism. But there we diverge. He rails against it. I accept it as a fact of life, as part of the ever-evolving media environment. The trick is knowing what to do about it and how to operate within it.

It’s a neat trick. Just ask Eric Watson. I’m sorry – Eric who…?

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