PR professionals have warned against brands lauding the global coronavirus pandemic as a ‘business opportunity’ after a retail magnate’s “damaging and dangerous” interview on Australian TV.
Gerry Harvey, the co-founder and executive chairman of department-store franchise Harvey Norman, sparked outrage for dismissing the severity of the pandemic and suggesting it had provided a good opportunity to sell freezers, air purifiers and other products.
Speaking on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes programme, Harvey said sales at Harvey Norman stores were up nine per cent on last year. There has been a 300 per cent spike in sales of freezers, while air purifiers are up 100 per cent.
"We've got enough sales people, enough customers and we're doing really good business,” said the billionaire entrepreneur.
“This is a nice big shop, we don’t have to get really close to each other, we don’t have to touch – you can come into the shop and you are 100 per cent OK.
“It’s not the Spanish Flu that killed 15 million people after the First World War. Why are we so scared about getting this virus? There’s nothing to be scared of.”
When 60 Minutes interviewer Liam Bartlett reminded Harvey that thousands had died in China and Italy, the retailer responded: “But that’s there and we’re here. I’m 80, I should be really scared, but guess what? I’m not scared… I’ve had a wonderful life and will keep going as if nothing has happened.”
Harvey’s comments were slammed on social media, with former Australian footballer Heather Garriock questioning why Harvey wasn’t doing more to help those in need.
As if u would put this interview up with this billionaire. I bet he was laying on Bondi beach as well with the other “she’ll be right aussies“ that have no idea about the extent of this virus ?? poor form @60Mins put your hand in your pocket Gerry to help those in need !!!— HeatherGarriock (@HeatherGarriock) March 22, 2020
Others have promised to boycott the stores.
Won't be shopping at your store. Arrogant, delusional and profiteering from a worldwide crisis.— Andrew ?????? (@humps70) March 22, 2020
Harvey Norman has reported strong sales in freezers, according to co-founder Gerry Harvey. (Photo: 60 Minutes screengrab)
‘Tone deaf and poor timing’
James Wright, global chief executive of Red Havas and chair of Havas PR Global Collective, previously lived in Australia and was visiting when the interview aired.
He told PRWeek: “The optics and timing of suggesting this is an ‘opportunity’ is wrong for any brand right now. Gerry’s never been short of an opinion; he is an entrepreneur and an optimist, so his character is to always look for the opportunity. His attitude of ‘she’ll be ‘right’ is in stark contrast to the sentiment of the nation and his business peers. But I doubt it will stop people turning up at his stores for goods.”
Australia has not yet entered full lockdown, but people are being encouraged to work from home. This has led to an increase in demand for ‘nesting’ products such as the white goods, TVs and other electronics available from Harvey Norman stores.
This short-term spike in demand is likely to subside as the pandemic extends for weeks and months, which leaves the real possibility that Harvey’s hubris could come back to haunt him.
Wright believes the outspoken retailer could have positioned his business as a champion of the community, rather than an opportunistic predator.
“It might have been good, if he wanted to push this message, to also look at what the ‘opportunity’ is for Harvey Norman to play a greater role in the community,” he said.
“Donating freezers and air purifiers to nursing homes, computer monitors and laptops for kids from lower economic backgrounds so they can learn from home, for example.”
Should Harvey – who breeds racing horses – stick to the track rather than share his views on the pandemic? Pictured, second from left, with Zara Phillips, Katie Page (CEO of Harvey Norman and Gerry Harvey's wife), and Mike Tindall. (Photo: Getty Images)
'He broke every rule in PR'
Other industry leaders were more critical of Harvey’s interview, labelling it a damaging PR exercise.
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, MD of Clearly PR, told PRWeek a global pandemic in which thousands are dying, businesses are shutting and economies are hurtling toward recession is not a time when any PR is ‘good PR’.
He added: "In light of Gerry Harvey’s most recent interview on 60 Minutes Australia, not only is his sense of optimism damaging and dangerous for his own health and wellbeing, it will undoubtedly ruin his business."
Milk & Honey’s Australia MD, Caroline Addy, told PRWeek the Harvey interview “broke every rule in PR”.
“Single-handedly, he managed to offend an entire nation of consumers. His comments would also have been felt by his workforce – the very people putting themselves at risk every day so he can brag about increased sales,” she said.
Addy pointed out that Harvey has previous form when it comes to outrageous comments; on one occasion, he famously said that giving money to homeless charities was like “helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason”.
She also questioned why 60 Minutes chose to interview “an octogenarian billionaire who has stuck his fingers up at political correctness many times before.
“If the media wants to do the right thing by Australians in these uncertain times, it needs to leave the Gerry Harveys of the world on the golf course,” she said.
Harvey isn’t the only senior business titan to receive flak over the way they have handled the coronavirus crisis.
PRWeek UK editor John Harrington believes that Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, easyJet’s Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Whetherspoon’s Tim Martin have all tarnished their reputations during this crisis.