‘Language used by CEO was minimising’: PR leader on racist incident at PwC Australia

Pure’s Phoebe Netto shares her thoughts on why comms was poorly handled following the internal crisis, as well as areas that could have been improved.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Australia said yesterday (Sep 28) that it would launch an investigation into a racist incident involving two HR executives. One senior manager of diversity and inclusion allegedly made fun of Chinese accents while the other was said to dress up as a ‘bat from Wuhan’ during an internal trivia night event last week.

Chief executive Tom Seymour told the Australian Financial Review (AFR) that the incident “did not reflect the values and culture of our firm” and that he had communicated with partners and staff “reminding them to consider how our behaviour can impact others”. He added that while the incident was unintentional, it was thoughtless and harmful and caused hurt among employees.

According to the AFR report, Seymour had informed partners of the firm about the incident and organised a town hall among employees to apologise to attendees of the trivia event. Company-wide communications was also circulated to explain that the investigation might take weeks.  


Phoebe Netto (pictured below), managing director of Pure Public Relations, told PRWeek Asia that the AFR report made it clear that the situation has not been taken anywhere near as seriously as it should. The report said the internal investigation has been met with scepticism from employees, not helped by inconsistencies between reports, with the AFR claiming the investigation could take weeks and The Australian claiming it’ll be resolved ‘within the week’.

“Calling the employees’ actions ‘unintentional’ seriously misses the mark, not least because one of the employees was a manager of diversity and inclusion,” said Netto. “This isn’t just two rogue members of staff—these are the senior team members who are supposed to be setting the tone for the rest of the company. Culture, tone, respect and good conduct start at the top. Their actions have set the bar incredibly low.”

Because of this incident, PwC’s clients, who might very well be of Chinese descent themselves, are now undoubtedly going to be questioning their affiliation with the consultancy, Netto added.

“In order to set the record straight, PwC is going to need more than a vague ‘investigation’, it’s going to need an entire organisational review into its culture. They now need to counter the perception that this is an all-of-department or whole-of-company issue, since two senior staff felt comfortable that they could be so offensive,” she said.

Netto added that the company’s actions have not been sufficient despite its aspiration to be a ‘caring and inclusive organisation’. Seymour’s language in media interviews and statements could have also been more forceful.

“Words like ‘discomfort’ appear to be minimising and downplaying the reaction, making it appear like an awkward moment as opposed to a seriously offensive and racist act. The language should have been much stronger, using something like ‘appalling’,” said Netto.

“But they get some points for speaking to the media and tackling the issue head-on with the chief executive front and centre. Staying quiet would have made them appear even more guilty, and the silence would have been filled with even more speculation, negative assumptions and criticism.”

Due diligence for the alleged offenders must also play a bigger role in the company’s PR narrative, Netto said. For instance, there was a brief mention of the staff members being potentially dismissed or suspended at the end of the report in The Australian, but was completely left out in the AFR report.

“This tells me that the PR involved didn’t want to shout about this fact. They should have led with this,” said Netto. “This kind of response might have worked ten years ago, but our tolerance for anything that is considered discriminatory or racist is incredibly low—and so it should be. If they’d read the room, they’d notice that people’s margin for tolerance is also incredibly low right now. The impact of lockdown and Covid has severely reduced people’s appetite for forgiveness.” 

Moving forward, the company should be clear about addressing its culture that could be complicit in enabling racist behaviour.

“An entire culture had to exist where this kind of behaviour was deemed acceptable. As a result, it needs a much bigger response than simply dealing with the two staff members alone. A diversity webinar or a slap on the wrist is not enough,” said Netto. 

“PwC needs to do a whole-of-company review and hire an external culture specialist to look at the entire organisation. They need to make sure there cannot and will not be circumstances in the future when any staff member would feel comfortable doing something like this again.” 

Netto suggested that the company also communicate with clients about this. “Clients are undoubtedly going to read about it in the media, so quick and direct communication is the best course of action. They need to explain to their clients what they are doing, when they are doing it, and how they are taking steps to address the problem head-on,” she said.

“This isn’t a mere storm in a teacup. As with any PR firestorm, once the blaze gets out of control, it’s almost impossible to extinguish.”

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