A few short months ago, George Calombaris was one of our best loved foodies with a restaurant empire, hit TV show and multimillion-dollar fortune to his name.
But that all changed in July when an investigation by Fair Work Australia found that over six years, 515 people employed by his hospitality business were underpaid by a total of $7.8 million.
The impact was catastrophic and his downfall swift. Within weeks he was dumped from the Network 10 reality series MasterChef Australia alongside fellow judges Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan following a pay dispute and mounting calls for Calombaris’ sacking.
He also lost endorsement deals and watched his restaurants sit empty for weeks.
But while the underpayment scandal seriously damaged his reputation, experts now say it was one fatal mistake he made after the news broke that might have truly cost him.
According to public relations expert Nicole Reaney, once the underpayment crisis was publicly revealed, the fact that Calombaris had self-reported the mistake – effectively dobbing himself in – was ignored.
That meant Calombaris missed one vital chance to control the story and cast himself in a positive light.
“He lost control of the angle of the story in the media – if he was on the front foot from the outset, he could have prevented a lot of that backlash,” she told news.com.au.
“It only came out in the aftermath that he had self-reported, but it could have been handled much more effectively.
“Now there is a degree of mistrust among existing and potential employees which could translate into future business partners, employers or sponsors, although I think over time, he will recover as he was committed to backpaying employees and doing the right thing.”
Fellow PR guru Catriona Pollard agreed the self-reporting angle should have been front and centre.
“It doesn’t release him from his actions, but it actually shows once he found out that he acted in good faith and therefore, from a personal branding perspective, it shows a positive character trait and builds a positive reputation because he chose to face the situation rather than hide it,” she said.
“We have since seen that underpayments have also happened in major organisations like Woolworths so there is a structural flaw in a lot of reporting systems – and that should have been one of the lead messages because instead it looked like he purposefully defrauded his employees.
“It was an emotional situation and it was a big flaw and a big mistake not to explain how it actually happened from the beginning.”
Here’s some of the other massive PR fails that rocked us in 2019.
While Calombaris’ downfall was huge news this year, Ms Pollard said the current bushfire scandal – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s underwhelming reaction to it – was actually “the biggest PR disaster of 2019”.
She said his failure to make strong public statements, address the issue of climate change and meet with fire authorities – as well as making flippant comments about the situation – meant he was walking into a massive public relations catastrophe.
Ms Pollard said public anger towards the situation was unprecedented as so many communities were directly impacted by the fires themselves and also because a huge percentage of the Australian population were indirectly impacted by smoke for weeks on end.
“The fires are in our social media feeds and in the media all day every day. This is not going to go away, and the fact he isn’t really meeting with fire chiefs and he hasn’t come out and made much of a statement shows he is misreading the community sentiment,” she said.
Ms Pollard said Mr Morrison seemed to be “sticking his head in the sand” and didn’t appear to be “taking the situation seriously”.
“People are losing their homes and dying and being flippant is the worst thing a leader can do in a crisis,” she said.
The furore over Israel Folau’s infamous homophobic Instagram post, subsequent sacking from Rugby Australia and decision to sue the body – and score a reported $8 million settlement – has dominated headlines.
But Ms Pollard said the situation had been “constantly flamed” by Folau doubling down on his controversial beliefs instead of containing it.
“I don’t know whether he has purposefully done that but we’ve seen leaked videos of his sermons and I wonder if there was a strategy in that,” she said.
“Even Alan Jones told him to be quiet, so him keeping on pushing his agenda brought up emotion on both sides.”
But she said the “fundamental problem” was with Rugby Australia for failing to employ people who respected the values of the organisation and its code of conduct in the first place.
Alan Jones’ “misogynistic” comments about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year sparked widespread condemnation from local and international leaders, sponsors and the public alike, leading to a mass exodus of advertisers from the shock jock’s radio show.
Ms Pollard said it hit a nerve because Ms Ardern is almost “universally liked” in Australia and because Jones’ comments about giving her “a few backhanders” and shoving a “sock down her throat” were “violent” in nature.
“These types of comments – and violence against women – is no longer acceptable to the majority of the population and they were the final straw,” she said.
“Thankfully, sponsors spoke with their feet – they are no longer willing to stay quiet when the people they are sponsoring aren’t meeting the values of their organisation – and for the first time, Jones was put on notice by his employers.”
According to Ms Reaney, the backlash over Prince Andrew’s links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was initially handled well, but the situation fell apart once he sat for his trainwreck interview with the BBC last month.
“Initially, it was handled very well by the royal family as they put out a statement and stuck to it; however, when he participated in the interview it really exposed him and definitely took away from any brand building by the royals,” she said.
“Epstein’s death opened the door for other victims to speak up and share their experiences. “The truth is always the best approach and it will prevail, but potentially the damage is done and he might be unable to recover his image.”
Ms Reaney said the George Pell child sex abuse scandal had decimated both his reputation and that of the Catholic Church, especially given the disgraced cardinal’s decision to appeal his five convictions for molesting two choirboys in Melbourne in 1996.
“Over the years we have seen priests convicted of abuse and we’ve seen the Catholic Church on a leadership level be protective of any allegations,” she said.
“In this case, even the fact the church is standing by the appeal is steps away from what it stands for – it’s meant to be an institution that encourages truth and kindness, so this is a questionable stance given Pell was convicted following evidence in a court of law.”
It has been a horror year for Australia’s biggest banks, with Westpac faring the worst following its recent child exploitation scandal that claimed the scalp of CEO Brian Hartzer and chairman Lindsay Maxsted.
Ms Reaney said Westpac’s conduct was especially galling given the lender positioned itself as a socially responsible organisation for years.
“Westpac fostered a very positive, caring and socially responsible reputation in the market,” she said.
“Mums and dads bank there as well as small businesses and charities and I think as this situation continues to be revealed, people will definitely question who they bank with because now people are very happy to switch their lender for a better deal but also for a better brand alignment.”
Burger chain Grill’d is now under fire with recent media reports revealing questionable workplace practices from staff payments to allegedly forging signatures on liquor licence applications.
Ms Reaney said so far, management had failed to contain the growing crisis.
“While the company has issued a statement, it currently remains free of any open acknowledgment of the recent media story,” she said.
“Social media posts have ceased in December with the public noticing comments being deleted, while others posing questions have remained unanswered.
“Sweeping issues under the carpet is never helpful at a time of crisis for organisations.”