Friday, May 03, 2013

Three lessons to take away from the Myer disability scheme backlash

By Tracy Jones
Comments by Myer and the Australian Retail Association about funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme are proof of just how dangerous it can be to swim in other people’s ponds.

Both Myer CEO Bernie Brookes and Australian Retailers' Association's executive director Russell Zimmerman showed they had no business wading into this important community debate with their poor choice of language, tone and topic.

And their responses to the social media outrage that inevitably followed their comments made things even worse.

Bernie Brookes began the debacle by telling a Sydney conference the levy proposed to fund the scheme was not good for customers and not good for the discretionary income world – that presumably would be otherwise spent at Myer stores.

After the initial outrage, Myer tried to apologise via Facebook, saying while it supported a scheme of some description “we remain sensitive to imposts on the consumer by the government generally, for whatever purpose, as this adds to negative consumer sentiment and that adversely impacts sales, profit and jobs.”

After a further barrage of abuse from mainstream and social media, Russell Zimmerman weighed into the debate: “What the public's got to realise is there are a large number of consumers out there who are doing it tough.”

While both Myer and the Australian Retailers’ Association are busy saying they’re sorry “if they offended anyone”, the whole episode is a salutary lesson for anyone who provides commentary in the public domain.

There are three key points to take away from this:

  1.  You should generally stick to swimming in your own pond: Offering public commentary on topical issues is a great way to position yourself as a subject matter expert – if the topic is one you should be commenting on. But why on earth is the CEO of Myer making comments about a national disability scheme? 
  2. If you find yourself swimming in someone else’s pond, make sure you understand the ground rules: Notice both Bernie Brookes and Russell Zimmerman talked about consumers, profits and sales rather than people and families. They didn’t understand the right language or tone to use when communicating with this audience.
  3. If you accidentally pee in someone else’s pond, just say sorry and get out of there: If you’re sorry, you’re sorry. Don’t try to justify it, explain it away or only be sorry if someone was offended. Say it like you mean it.