They call it the three M’s of crisis communications – managing the situation, maintaining trust, and minimising potential damage. For all the failures of the PwC tax avoidance scandal, and there are plenty, its crisis communications response, or lack of, is pretty lacklustre too.

They haven’t even taken their own advice on this one. Can anyone spell irony? PwC claim to be experts in this field. Just google PwC crisis communications and they will tell you.

Good practice would have them immediately acknowledged the failing, concede it was breathtakingly bad behaviour, and repercussions would follow. Ownership, honesty, accountability, action, and transparency.

Instead, they obfuscated, shifted blame, promised sanitised disclosure, avoided accountability until it was unavoidable, and protected themselves at all costs.

A few days of bad headlines has now turned into weeks of front-page flagellation, with no end in sight. The media sharks smell blood, hate deception and aren’t going to take PwC’s ‘sorry, not sorry’ message.

An event that redefined crisis communications

‘He’s down’, is all I remember saying before rushing over to help renowned 60 Minutes Reporter Richard Carleton when he had a massive heart attack, broadcasted live on national television.

It was the afternoon of the 12th day of the painstaking rescue of Todd Russell and Brant Webb in Beaconsfield. An event that had captured the world’s attention and singlehandedly rewrote the crisis communication rulebook. This event took place during the dawn of the social media age. It was the year Facebook was born, and the 24-hour news cycle, where speed, transparency and accuracy mattered like never before.

As the tragedy unfolded, it became on-the-job training in effective media management, balancing the need for accurate information with the sensitivity required during a crisis.  Timely updates and transparency while protecting the well-being of those involved.

The media management lessons of the Beaconsfield Mine disaster can, and should, be applied to any crisis communications situation such as that faced by PwC.

Lessons learned

Lesson number one is to establish clear and reliable communications with the media. At Beaconsfield, there were more than a hundred media in attendance from around the world.  All hungry for information and an exclusive, and all thinking the miners would be rescued in a few hours. It took two weeks.

Establish a single point of contact for the media, streamlining the flow of information, ensuring that accurate updates were disseminated promptly. It reduces confusion and minimises the risk of misinformation spreading.

We fed the media. Literally. Cold and cranky journos never bode well for anyone. Most importantly we feed them information. We fed them talent from ambulance officers to doctors from Mine management to the local Mayor. We kept it fresh, we kept it interesting, and we set the agenda.

We gave the ‘corporate bad guys’ a public and relatable, face. The mine manager, Matthew Gill, was empathetic in his dealings, apologetic when required and, most importantly, genuine in his responses. He sometimes did two press conferences a day. The questions were not easy: was the mine unsafe, did you send them down knowing that the mine was dangerous, do you have blood on your hands, and many others. Richard Carleton was always asking the tough questions.
‘Why is it, is it the strength of the seam or the wealth of the seam, that you continue to send men in to work in such a dangerous environment?’

Beaconsfield was difficult for the company. Unlike PwC, they chose to be transparent, honest and accurate.  It helped build trust and credibility with the media and the public. Regular press conferences, briefings, and updates allowed journalists to relay the most recent information to their audiences, ensuring that accurate news was circulating.


We didn’t get everything right but when it went wrong, we adapted, quickly. Proactively address false information and provide clarifications whenever necessary. Honest mistakes are accommodated, dishonesty and obscuration are not.  You have to earn the trust: hard won and easily lost.

One day there were rumours that a media organisation was paying rescuers to sneak in cameras. True or not, when rumours take hold in a crisis, you need to address them. We called in all the senior leaders of media organisations, negotiated with them and the families involved, and came up with a compromise. In short, no organisation would miss out on those now famous pictures of the Brant Webb and Todd Russell leaving the mine.  In return the media showed they were prepared to act with more empathy and responsibility, minimising additional distress to the families.

We worked with the media, not shut them out. It takes courage to step forward and embrace them, but it comes with rewards.  Hiding is not an option, and lying is game over. Be human, maintain honesty and authenticity throughout the crisis. Avoid misleading or false statements.

Acknowledge any mistakes or shortcomings and demonstrate a commitment to resolving the issue. PwC might benefit from reading a different playbook, or their own actually.

What not to do

Take the Beaconsfield approach verses PwC.

Who is the public face of PwC? Who is on camera, delivering the message continuously that they failed, and are taking responsibility. Who is apologising and then apologising and then apologising again, until the message is heard?

Who is out there saying they have let down the team, that the broader staff are decent people who had no role in the scandal? Who is saying, ‘don’t punish the many for the failings of the few’? ‘That the few who failed, at every level, have been found accountable, with consequence, swiftly’.

There is plenty that could be said. Instead, we have crisis communications via committee. Damage control the wrong way, building fortresses not bridges. The Board is sending out written statements that are too slow, lack empathy with the public, don’t really accept responsibility, all backed by a new, albeit interim, CEO who lacks credibility because saying sorry on paper is nothing like saying sorry in person.

They need a face.

Doing nothing is an option, just a bad one. A half-baked offering to release a summary of an internal audit gained them nothing but disdain. They treated the public like fools. A quick look at PwC’s Australia twitter account shows the mentality. Not a single tweet addressing the issue. Just a “nothing to see here” attitude and hoping it will all go away. Odds on its lawyer driven, but there is no one that seems to be driving the business view, despite their credentials as business consultants.

I think the best we can say is, ‘don’t be like PwC’.

Shaun Rigby head’s Kiah’s communications team. He was an on the ground media advisor during the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster. A media specialist, he has worked on numerous election campaigns and ran high intensity PR campaigns for national clients.

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