The Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. A good example is found in businesses that have undergone a period of rapid expansion with the resultant increase in revenues followed by a plateau or decline in sales due to unforeseen circumstances such as the entry of a competitor. A typical knee jerk reaction for many businesses is to cut costs, with labor being the softest target. A series of retrenchments within businesses leads to lowering of staff morale and the unintended consequence is that good staff then start to leave as they are uncertain of the organization’s future. As good staff start to leave, management provides incentives such as higher pay to retain talent and the vicious cycle of increased costs begins to play out again.

But that example is rather obvious, though oft repeated by organizations. A less apparent illustration of unintended consequences occurred in a year ago, on 4th December 2012 at the most unlikely of places – the King Edward VII hospital in London where the Duchess of Cambridge had been admitted with severe morning sickness in the early stages of her pregnancy. Two Australian DJ’s from 2Day FM in Sydney, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, called the hospital purporting to be Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth inquiring about the Duchess’ health.

Jacintha Saldhana , the nurse who received the 5:30 a.m. call as the hospital’s switchboard operator was not on duty, mistakenly believed the DJs to be genuine and put the call through to another nurse who went ahead to give personal details of the Duchess’s condition to the pranksters. 3 days later, Jacintha – a mother of two teenage children- was found dead in the hospital’s nursing quarters in an apparent suicide. The pre-meditated prank had allegedly been cleared with 2Day FM’s lawyers before airing. While the intended consequences had been to entertain and titillate the station’s listeners, the unintended consequences resulted in the suicide of one of the prank’s victims. Following the tragic outcome, a media backlash ensued both in the United Kingdom and in Australia resulting in threats and actual boycotts of business by advertisers on the radio station. This is ideally where this tragic story should come to an end. But it doesn’t.

Following the suicide debacle, Christian moved to work at another radio station owned by the same parent company Southern Cross Media, this time in the city of Melbourne. In June 2013, six months after the tragedy, he was named the “top jock” by his employer in an internal competition to find the “best in the land”. According to his employer’s website, it was a reward for his role in the company’s community of seasoned and emerging talent.

“From the start I felt like I had something to prove to myself,” Christian said. “That regardless of all that’s happened in the past few months I’m still at the top of my game. So it felt good to see my name at the top of the final leader-board.”
The Independent newspaper in the UK reported that Stephen Conroy, Australian communications minister, criticized the award. He said: “There was some very serious consequences of what was a prank and to be seen to be rewarding people so soon after such an event, I think is just in bad taste.”
So you would think that it couldn’t get worse than this from a public relations perspective, right? Wrong! Southern Cross Media is clearly not a learning organization and this was apparent later in the year when the Chairman of the company made a less than appropriate statement regarding the suicide debacle. At the annual shareholders meeting in October 2013, the Chairman Max Moore-Wilton was answering a shareholder’s question as to whether there was a cultural problem within the organization following the UK incident and two others incidents also involving other DJs who promoted outrageous commentaries live on air. The chairman’s response was “In each particular case we thoroughly investigated them and it comes generally within the context of some of these incidents where a whole series of events come together and in the immortal words of somebody who I forget, S-H-I-T happens.”
I guess it helped that he spelt out the words rather than said the actual profanity in the interest of minding his language. The unapologetic chairman was quite obviously pilloried in the media thereafter, especially since he claimed that the use of such language was “common every day parlance” in Australia. “If you don’t like it, or the media don’t like it, well that’s fine,” was his response to the Australian Associated Press.
As stated at the beginning of this piece, the law of unintended consequences is that actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. In the case of an Australian media company, what started off as a prank call that was approved by the legal team ended up with a series of public relations gaffes that put the company under the harsh media glare in both Australia and the UK. The company was also put under investigation by the communications regulator in Australia on whether the radio station had breached its broadcasting licence immediately after the suicide tragedy. The regulator’s preliminary findings, which Southern Media has appealed, were that indeed there was a breach of the law. The award of “Top Jock” to one of the DJs demonstrated that the company was quite happy to let bygones be bygones despite the public backlash that the DJ’s activity had generated. The chairman of the company was also put on the spotlight by shareholders and revealed, in very flowery response, the casual view with which he (and/or the company) took some very serious events. The unintended consequences of two Australian DJs were to tragically impact an Indian nurse in London and an Australian company all the way to the top of its corporate food chain.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka