Why the Prime Minister’s shoes were front page news

Insight

You would be forgiven for thinking it was a slow news week when images of the Prime Ministerial #shoegate Photoshop fail were featured prominently in the media.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison copped some flak when an image appeared in the public domain seeming to show his shoes had been Photoshopped. His everyman trainers had become two left pristine white sneakers. An eagle-eyed Twitter user spotted the edit before the story was picked up locally as well as overseas.

After a few days of coverage of the fail, Morrison’s office issued a response. The image was part of a “preliminary exploration of design concepts” and had been “inadvertently published”. Morrison also tweeted that he “didn’t ask for shoeshine” but wished any future image tweaks would improve his hair, rather than focussing on shoes.

Whether or not the PM’s office or even the man himself were aware of the ‘preliminary exploration’ is less interesting than considering why the story got such a run in the first place. When something as trivial as a pair of white sneakers hits the front page, there is something bigger at play.

The coverage of the issue and subsequent criticism of the PM spoke directly to the sense of disconnect between our country’s leaders and ordinary Australians – and with six PMs in the last seven years this is hardly surprising.

It is also symptomatic of the broader loss of trust in our institutions and the lack of authenticity we feel about the people in charge. Leaders are under more scrutiny than ever.

The importance of leaders being humble was recently discussed and the #shoegate episode would seem to support this. It also provides a number of insights for leaders in a year when we expect to see governments and businesses held to account and judged on their actions and results.

So what’s a maligned PM to do? And are there communication and engagement lessons here for other organisations wanting to help bridge the gap between their leaders and people?

  • Develop a strong narrative – a shared narrative unites people and helps to navigate ambiguity. This is true for your internal team and your external stakeholders too. A narrative clearly positions you, and if people know what you really stand for, there is more chance they will laugh off minor mishaps rather than taking them seriously.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – Morrison’s self-deprecating tweet helped him to regain control of the story. It was also no coincidence that he kicked off a series of public activities to set out his values and position on the economy in the week after #shoegate. You may not agree with his policies and values, but at least there is a better chance you will know what they are. A clear communication plan that is delivered well helps leaders and organisations move forward with a strong sense of direction.
  • Have a robust plan for a crisis – although Photoshopped white shoes may not be considered a crisis by some, they probably caused a degree of unnecessary head-scratching for key people in the government, especially in an election year.  With the right planning and processes in place, organisations can gain vital clarity on when and how to respond to any public commentary, and there is more chance storms will be confined to a teacup rather than washing into the national media.

Of course, you could also ban the use of Photoshop, but that’s entirely up to you.