As one royal commission closes, another one opens. And we can reasonably expect this one to be more sensational, with yet more video clips of mistreated elderly people, stories of financial mismanagement, staff shortages, and profit gouging. Plus, the hearing is occurring in a frenetic election period, so providers can expect point-scoring political parties to amplify wrongdoing.

Yet, the scrutiny offers an opportunity; organisations can prepare by studying the processes and outcomes of the Hayne royal commission.

Those that learn least will suffer most. Of the financial witnesses, we think Commonwealth Bank appears to have prepared best, with AMP and NAB clearly badly under-preparing, or wrongly preparing, and it has showed in the outcomes.

Strategy

Preparation requires a clear strategy supported by a strong and united leadership team and board. A key component should be making the tough decisions before appearing in the witness box.

CBA arguably had the most to lose at the banking royal commission, with a succession of scandals including Storm Financial, CommInsure and the money laundering scandal. However, it effectively mitigated a lot of impact by replacing CEO Ian Narev before hearings kicked off, allowing Matt Comyn to be a break from past mistakes. Relatively new chair Catherine Livingston (apt 2016) was also able to explain other recent board level decisions. An essential part of strategy is to anticipate commission outcomes and pre-empt them.

The whole sector, not just the witnesses, will be transformed by the Royal Commission into Aged Care. We saw this in the last two commissions.

To maintain the confidence of stakeholders, providers must ensure that no surprises are unearthed by the commission. This means undertaking painful internal reviews and communicating the findings to stakeholders.

Effective strategy development and implementation requires a united board. A divided board, or a weak one, will be pulled apart or unable to be decisive. Both AMP and NAB were punished for not acting quickly to remove the leaders called-out for serious failings.

Messages underpinned by values and performance

Providers must have a strong set of messages underpinned by 1) values and 2) performance – there is no room for fluff, excuses or accepting low standards. Or hubris: Ken Henry, one of Australia’s financial leaders, either didn’t rehearse or didn’t listen to his media trainers.

Those not called as witnesses will be challenged by their more assertive client’s families, financiers, staff or shareholders, so they need to be ready with their responses.

These messages must be consistent and reiterated throughout the royal commission process across different communications channels – whether that’s in media interviews, an appearance at a hearing or simply in conversations.

“Sorry” alone won’t cut it. Nor will, “We will have to do better at focussing on our customers”. They didn’t sit well for the banks, with an increasingly cynical public especially when mis-selling continued during the commission and branches were closed in regional areas.

And the bar will be higher this time. Care providers will have to do better than the banks, just as the banks had to improve on those appearing before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Anticipate the commission’s outcomes and start implementing them now. Then you will have messages based on values and performance that work.

Prepare your spokesperson

We saw it time and again at the banking royal commission. There were good witnesses and bad. It is simply a matter of preparation and people who were not prepared let their organisation down. There are really no excuses in this era when leaders can no longer be quiet achievers.

The same goes for leaders not appearing. There may not be the intensity of being cross-examined by Rowena Orr, but residents and their relatives, financiers, shareholders and staff will expect you to be able to explain yourself and your organisation’s behaviour.

Media training isn’t about talking lucidly and wearing the right outfit. It’s about strategy design, the development of key messages based on truth, transparency and authenticity, and then learning how to communicate that to different audiences. Talking to a journalist in a hurry is different to Rowena Orr, or an anxious family member.

Be Nimble

Strategy doesn’t change quickly, but tactics often must be responsive. If a CEO, Ms. X is accused of financial corruption on a Tuesday at our royal commission, on Wednesday morning you should expect, “What did you think of what happened to Ms. X yesterday?”, or “Can that happen here?”. Comprehensive response required.

Communicate with stakeholders

Develop a communications plan across all stakeholders as part of the strategy. Providers will receive questions and complaints from concerned family members and residents as the Royal Commission progresses.

Is it an opportunity? How about a short weekly summary of the commission hearing, and how what was said is relevant to your organisation?

Prepare and rehearse what you will communicate to stakeholders, how it will be communicated, and who will communicate it. Better people learn about it from you than in the media.

Summary

We should expect this royal commission to be tougher than the last, which was tougher than the one before it. To make it through, providers must prepare, be pre-emptive where possible, be transparent, be responsive, and embrace the resulting changes that will sweep through the sector.

Written with Nick Albrow, a fellow director of Wilkinson Butler

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