PR is sometimes cynically described as trying to put the best possible complexion on a given set of facts. Of course it’s much, much more than that. But occasionally that’s the priority when you are caught out doing something really dumb. Like, for instance, illegally destroying a heritage-protected hotel.
That was the challenge facing two property developers in central Melbourne after they demolished the 159-year-old Corkman Irish Pub in Carlton, just a week after it was damaged by a suspicious fire (now under investigation by the police arson squad).
While Council officials found no signs the two-storey historic building would need to be demolished as a result of the fire, on Saturday 14 October a demolition crew linked to the developers started to knock it down. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said that despite a stop work order issued that night, they returned on Sunday to finish the job. He said: “This is the most brazen and wanton act of destructive vandalism that I’ve seen in my time as Lord Mayor.” The public outcry was as swift as it was predictable, increased further when it was revealed the rubble contained asbestos, and the country’s biggest building union placed a construction ban on the site.
You’d think the developers would have been super careful at this stage, but no. Asbestos-contaminated waste from the old hotel was discovered dumped on another development site they own in outer suburban residential Cairnlea.
You’d also think that with five separate agencies investigating potential breaches, developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski – who have other building projects in the city – would have something to say. But for almost two weeks the news media were not able to get any response.
Then, 13 days after the demolition began and facing a firestorm of criticism, they sent a letter to the Planning Minister. Released by their PR consultants, the letter was certainly blunt. “We apologise for having undertaken this demolition without the appropriate permits in place” and concluded “We will reconstruct the hotel as it was, forthwith.” The letter also contained a convoluted explanation built on misunderstandings, prior advice and arguing that the demolition was done to protect community safety. However it unambiguously conceded: “Undoubtedly, this was the wrong course of action.” (full text here)
While a parade of officials, tribunals and costly lawyers will doubtless determine the fate of the developers and the site over coming months, there are some pretty clear lessons in terms of issue and crisis management. First and foremost is failing to offer any comment or explanation for almost two weeks.
Their letter said: “The lack of public commentary by us on this matter might serve to underline our naivety. We wish we had made a statement earlier, but we simply hoped to deal with this through formal processes.”
Naïve possibly, but a classic error in the face of a crisis. Saying nothing creates a news vacuum where every critic and commentator fills the gap. It allows speculation and allegations to multiply and increases the temperature of the public discourse. While the illegal demolition in Melbourne inevitably triggered a legal and reputational crisis, some sharp PR advice – albeit too late – showed there was another way forward.