Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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NDIS fallout continues: 21,000 call on Myer to boost employment of people with disabilities

Published 03 May 2013 11:48, Updated 06 May 2013 09:39

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NDIS fallout continues: 21,000 call on Myer to boost employment of people with disabilities

The backlash against Myer chief Bernie Brookes has now turned into a petition with 21,000 signatures. Photo: Byline: Matthew Bayard

In less than 24 hours, more than 21,000 people have signed a petition calling on Myer to increase employment of people with disabilities to 10 per cent of its workforce.

The petition shows the depth of public anger stirred by Myer chief executive Bernie Brookes’ comments on the national disability insurance scheme on Wednesday and how the retailer fumbled its response.

The petition was started on Change.org by disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes at about 1.30pm on Thursday and by 10.30am on Friday, the petition had collected 21,207 signatures.

Change.org Australia communications director Tony Robertson says it is unusual for a petition take off so quickly.

“It shows there is a lot of concern in the community and in the absence of Myer saying anything further, I would expect it to continue,” Robertson says. “The longer they don’t respond in any detail, it’s only going to get trickier for them.”

The biggest petition ever for Change.org in Australia was targeted at 2GB and Alan Jones after the broadcaster commented off air that the prime minister’s father had “died of shame”. That ultimately collected 116,000 signatures.

More typically, a large petition might attract 40,000 signatures but take months to get there - such as the current one calling on Jetstar to drop or lower its credit charge surcharge.

The background

Brookes sparked the furore when media reports quoted his remarks at a Macquarie Securities Conference on Wednesday, saying that the levy to fund the NDIS would be bad for Myer customers and hit discretionary spending. “Suddenly the Medicare levy costs them another $300 from July next year and that’s $300 they might have spent with us,” he reportedly said.

As a result Facebook and Twitter lit up with outrage on Wednesday night with calls to boycott the retailer, as shown in the Storify embedded at the bottom of our Thursday story.

On Thursday morning Myer attempted damage control, posting a comment on Facebook to “clarify” Brookes’ remarks, saying they had been “taken out of context”. The comment says the company supports the NDIS but would prefer it to be funded from existing revenue rather than a new tax.

Later in the day, Myer posted an apology to Twitter. “We are very sorry to those who have been hurt by our comments & want to make it very clear that we support the introduction of the NDIS.”

Era of transparency

The success of the petition and the continued outrage on social media show that Myer’s attempts to clarify Brookes’ remarks fell flat with the public, just as BRW predicted.

This analysis is not about joining the Brookes-bashing bandwagon. It is reasonable for a retailer to express concern about a tax hike and some of the reaction has been over the top. However, it was always going to be a sensitive issue given that the NDIS has widespread public support – and suggesting that the levy was somehow robbing Myer of profits was unfortunate phrasing at best. Brookes also ignored the Productivity Commission report on the economic benefits of the scheme.

Myer has made two fundamental missteps and there are lessons for both CEOs and marketers.

The consumer is always in the room

1. Social media means greater transparency than ever before. CEOs and business executives cannot tailor their messages for different audiences – the consumer is always in the room.

The implications are simple: Don’t say anything at a public event that you wouldn’t put on Twitter or say in a sound bite on the evening news. It is particularly foolish at a securities conference when there are journalists reporting on the event, but business executives can’t rely on “Chatham House rules” either. The notion that you can be off the record to an entire room full of people is nonsense – if you are saying it to more than one other person, then you must assume it might be reported.

This is something that business leaders should already understand. The lesson was there when Barack Obama got in trouble in 2008 for his remarks on “bitter” small-town Americans. It was there in 2012 when Alan Jones made his “die of shame” comments supposedly under “Chatham House rules” and when failed Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote off 47 per cent of his country during the election campaign.

Greater transparency is leading to greater authenticity. Effective leadership in the 21st century is not about a CEO hiding his or her true opinions and speaking in bland PR-approved sound bites. The successful 21st century leader is one who has the same message in private and public because their values are consistent in any setting and they are leading from a position of conviction. (For more on this read Who Cares Wins, by Havas CEO David Jones – no connection to the department store of the same name).

Mishandling the reaction

2. The second misstep was on the part of Myer’s marketing team. The response on Thursday morning fell far short of what was needed. It should have been clear from the tone and volume of the comments on Facebook and Twitter that the outrage was mainstream and was not something that would blow over.

It was a fundamental misreading of the situation to suggest that people had misinterpreted Brookes’ comments or taken them out of context. Myer should have given its customers more credit than that. The general public understood perfectly well that Brookes was concerned that a tax increase would hit discretionary spending and therefore Myer’s bottom line. They simply found that to be a “callous” remark born from a sense of entitlement that Myer deserved that money more than disabled people, some of whom are Myer customers.

People felt that it took too long for the company to use the word “sorry” and it didn’t feel genuine coming after the initial justification, nor did it come from Brookes itself.

Either Myer’s social media team misread the situation and advised an inadequate response or else they knew what needed to be done but their voices were junior and they were overruled. Either way, this shows why a company needs people with understanding of social media in the C-suite and on the board.

Also read Leo D’Angelo Fisher: A taxing time for Bernie Brookes on social media

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