Public Relations & PM Tony Abbott: The Risks of Social Media

The global popularity of social media necessitates wide-eyed attention by Public Relations Professionals.  Social media’s relational and dialogic nature provides ways expand the conversations that people have always had, or always wanted to have.

But in the world of reputation management, social media can also manifest extreme risks. Poor reputation threatens organisations and individuals in tangible ways including competitiveness, local positioning, media relations and the legitimacy (Aula, 2010, p,44).

Consider the time, effort and money required to build loyalty and trust amongst your valued stakeholders, only to lose it with the blink of an eye?  Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, can relate to this.

During a recent ABC Radio interview, Mr Abbott received a call from Gloria, a 67 year old pensioner with incurable and life threatening conditions.  To illustrate the consequences of the proposed Federal Budget cuts upon her livelihood, Gloria shared “I survive on about $400 a fortnight after I pay my rent and I work on an adult sex line to make ends meet.”

Mr Abbott responded with a ‘wink’ and a ‘smirk’.   Although hidden from both Gloria and the radio audience at the time, this poignant moment was caught on camera.  Not surprisingly, social media sharing rapidly spread the incident nationwide.

Interpreting motive is debatable.  For many, their perception became the reality-creating ‘ambient publicity’ (Aula, 2010, p.47) through which Mr Abbott’s encounter became known as ‘Winkgate’.  The effects on his online reputation were startling.

Professionally, his role as Minister for Women was attacked in news feeds and social media and questioned Mr Abbott’s ability to perform this role when he clearly has ‘women problems’.  This ‘fuelled new beliefs’ (Aula, 2010, p.45) about Mr Abbott’s capabilities to which he was required to respond.  Unfortunately the PM’s explanation differed from his office’s official statement.  The very impression of insincerity caused female voter support to drop 33% – all fuelled by online opinion.

Tweeters labelled his reaction as ‘creepy and disgusting’ and lead to the irreverent hashtag #MorePopularThanAbbott, which has since suggested that both ‘socks with sandals’ and ‘ebola’ are more popular than the Australian Prime Minister.

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The onslaught of social media influence ‘presented a collective truth’ (Aula, 2010, 46) so convincing and remarkable that the US TV show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver caught on and also gave Mr Abbott a roasting… and Winkgate made the final cut.

Clearly ‘social media expands the spectrum of reputation risks and boosts risk dynamics’ (Aula, 2010, p.45).  Publics can scrutinise what they want, when they want – as long as there’s a recording of image, words or actions which can be shared, replayed and criticised in detail.

Public Relations Professionals who engage with online publics harnesses incredible potential to simultaneously be exposed to extensive risk and also achieve strategic goals like never before.  However, note that ‘social media content cannot be controlled in advance’ nor can ‘content be managed’ in the traditional sense and it’s nearly impossible for organisations and individuals to ‘control conversations about themselves’ (Aula, 2010, p.44).

Therefore, a strategic case-by-case approach may be the best bet for Public Relations Professionals wanting to build and support  social media relationships with their stakeholders.  Solid corporate responsibility fares well with online publics and enables believability when attempting to inspire ‘true and compelling’ interaction and sharing.

Do you think it’s possible to reverse the damage done to Mr Abbott’s reputation?  Is there hope for his Public Relations advisor?

For more on social media and building online relationships, see Public Relations now: Social media is a return to origin and A new frontier: Social media reignites Public Relations.


Pekka, A., (2010), Social media, reputation risk and ambient publicity management, Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 38 Iss: 6, pp.43 – 49.



One thought on “Public Relations & PM Tony Abbott: The Risks of Social Media

  1. jsleflore says:

    I think the reputation of Mr. Abbott will be based on how much time the publics give him, (assuming he does not do something to make it worse) or until something new happens that would cause the public to shift focus. It is really hard to determine the high turnover of social media and the interest in the day to day dealings.

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