There’s much businesses can learn about handling crisis communications from the recent ball-tampering scandal that has engulfed Australian cricket.

The incident has reverberated right through the sport and around the world and had far-reaching consequences. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even spoke out publicly against his own country’s team and there was widespread condemnation of the culprits’ actions.

Three players – captain Steve Smith, vice captain David Warner and rookie Cameron Bancroft – have been banned from representing their country. Coach Darren Lehmann fell on his sword, although he doesn’t appear to have had prior knowledge of the plot.

This was a classic example of once a crisis is ignited it can spark and spread like wildfire. While the Australian team and advisors got some aspects of their communications right, here are five things they got wrong.

For any crisis communications, gather the facts first

As soon as the TV cameras caught Bancroft acting suspiciously with ball in hand and then hurriedly stuffing a foreign object down his trousers, the team was in trouble.

Those in the dressing room who’d seen the images on screen knew this. They got a message out to Bancroft through the 12th man. But Bancroft and Smith tried to downplay the extent of their effort to manipulate the ball when quizzed on field by the umpires and when facing the media at the end of play.

Kevin Pietersen tweetBIG mistake. There’s no way those two players should have been allowed in a room full of story-hungry journalists without their management knowing EXACTLY the extent of the problem.

Any media advisor worth their fee wouldn’t put a spokesperson out to be interviewed in a crisis situation without knowing the FULL facts and therefore how to respond. Ex-player Kevin Pietersen wasn’t alone in realising this was not going to go away so easily.

If you need to admit to wrongdoing, admit to it all

Guardian sport front pageFirst it was a glasses cloth, then a piece of tape and finally – MUCH later on – we found out it was sandpaper that had been used on the ball.

Partial admissions might turn down the heat temporarily. However, the flames are going to lick a lot higher if later the full extent of your misdeed comes out.

Changing your story twice? That’s bad. If a company only admits to the truth in stages its public credibility is on the floor. The public and media are much more likely to be able to accept a frank confession given at the first time of asking.

Always look at a crisis from the public’s viewpoint

When something’s gone wrong it’s vital to retain some outside perspective. Someone in the organisation’s got to be weighing up how this is looking to the world. That means to customers, stakeholders, employees and the wider community.

If you haven’t got this, you can be caught out by the seriousness of the situation. Reacting slowly is a classic sign that an organisation hasn’t realised just how BAD things are going to get.

At that first press conference, while there was some embarrassment at being caught in the act of cheating, there wasn’t an understanding of how big this was going to BLOW.

Smith naively talked about learning from it and moving on. The captain had come straight from the field of play to the press conference. He was in a player-mode bubble, he needed someone from the organisation to apply a bit of real world perspective.

This was not going to be smoothed over with a couple of apologies. 

Front up and get ahead of the story

Sure enough events spiralled. The player bans were meted out with the team still in South Africa. The condemnation  was now in full flow.

So credit to Smith and Bancroft for fronting up to the world’s media as soon as they landed back in Oz. Their tears and contrition came across as genuine.

There was the beginning of an acceptance that here were two youngish men who were now going to pay a pretty heavy price for their error of judgement.

Michael Vaughan tweet

Contrast that with the view on the third player, Warner.

He chose not to face the media straight up but instead posted a tweet that talked of ‘mistakes being made’. A sceptical media was given time and space to fill the void his absence left.

Michael Vaughan tweet against David Warner

It didn’t do anything to ease his position. There was a view the perceived instigator of the incident was hoping to lay low until the dust settled.

Don’t avoid legitimate questions

Two days later Warner did hold a press conference.

But his refusal to answer the direct questions put to him only served to further fuel the fire. Declining to answer reasonable questions makes you look evasive and as though there’s more to hide.

No one would relish being under fire like that but waiting 48 hours and then answering none of the questions the customers (paying public) wanted answering did not go down well. Understandably people want to move on in these situations, but that’s hard to do when there’s a feeling a full explanation has not been forthcoming.

Jonathan Agnew tweet on press conference

And it’s still not over

Not for the first time the crisis comms mantra ‘tell it all, tell it fast, tell it true’ seemed the most common sense and appropriate advice.

No crisis communication plan would be able to wipe away blatant acts of cheating caught on TV. But a well-actioned one could have mitigated some of the worst criticism.

As it is, a lot of questions are left about who knew what and when. This will only serve to keep the scandal simmering for a good while longer.

The sooner Cricket Australia can complete its investigations and get its FULL report out to media and public, the sooner it can start the long haul to rebuilding a tarnished reputation.

More on crisis communications for business here.