Crisis Communications: The Koala Crusade

When Greater Port Macquarie, on the New South Wales mid-north coast, was thrust into the national and global spotlight due to the tragic bushfires raging through the 2019/20 summer, the local council received a tremendous volume of media enquiries and attention daily.

Gate 7’s PR team was already facilitating the council’s public relations efforts and quickly adapted to assist with this emerging challenge. Immediately, they turned to managing the flow of information and controlling the media narrative. As continued catastrophe (and subsequent generosity) further focused attention on the local Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, the team was asked to expand their efforts and provide a second holistic crisis communications strategy for this important stakeholder and drawcard for the region.

Background and Challenge

Gate 7 had been engaged by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council for public relations services since May 2019 in a general press office capacity, working with journalists, facilitating familiarisation trips, and proactively pitching stories for the region. As the magnitude of the bushfire emergency came into increasingly sharp focus, Gate 7’s role established them as an on-the-ground extension of the council, assisting in crisis communications, media relations, and message strategy.

Strategy and Solution

With activity already heightened, the team needed to quickly roadmap a strategic solution to both control the narrative and position themselves as gatekeepers for the enquires. We drew upon a tranche of experience gained supporting international clients through a range of crisis situations both natural and man-made, including the recent tragic California wildfire seasons.

Our team worked collaboratively with Port Macquarie-Hastings Council to establish a messaging and media strategy, plus identified possible obstacles they would face by monitoring existing coverage and real-time press clippings.

The first objective was to qualify and manage the flow of enquiries for both the council and local stakeholders, and in turn, begin to provide accurate and timely information and control the narrative. The team established a clear framework for directing enquiries and responding with the best information at hand.

Due to the specific interest generated by several viral images and videos of bushfire-stricken koalas, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital became globally famous overnight and was similarly deluged with media attention. Thanks to our previous working relationship, the Gate 7 team was hired to work directly with the Koala Hospital to introduce a similar media vetting process.

After clearing the initial surge of media enquiries for both the Koala Hospital and the Council, the team began to proactively set the narrative. We set out to leverage strong relationships with key news and lifestyle contacts who could craft and silo stories to targeted audiences, allowing for key messaging to reach the right readers.

Yahoo News Australia reporter and video producer, Michael Dahlstrom, was invited to capture footage and produce stories featuring the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.

While there, he also interviewed local businesses, residents, a koala detection dog trainer, and other stakeholders, to ascertain their situation and how the nation could help. Michael was chosen because of his specialisation in wildlife, environment, and regional Australia.

Equally as important, Yahoo! News Australia provided significantly broad reach plus a wide cross-section of related titles and publications such as Yahoo! Lifestyle Australia, which could repackage Michael’s content into softer lifestyle and travel pieces.

In order to promote positive messages over negative narratives, three main messaging pillars were established and amplified amongst key journalists and media titles.

Bushfire Updates

This practical pillar focussed on the situation on the ground. Immediately useful bushfire updates were prioritised, with recovery messaging, stakeholder updates, and highlights of less impacted areas, which were still open for business, peppered throughout.

Post-Bushfire Recovery Messaging

Once the immediate danger had passed, the focus switched to promoting tourism recovery to stabilise the region’s peak season business and reassure travellers that were hoping to visit in the coming months. This messaging leveraged the media’s interest in the crisis to promote further tourism-focused narratives and encouraged a shift in focus to positive and uplifting lifestyle and travel pieces. These stories ran the gamut from traditional travel stories to lateral angles, like including “Adopt-a-Koala” packages in Christmas gift guides.

Koala Hospital Messaging

Gate 7 structured a fourth messaging pillar around the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, thanks to its unique and significant coverage in national and international media, and our on-going partnership. While working specifically with the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, viral content spurred an enormous influx of donations and support for the conservation group. Gate 7’s team helped foot media enquiries informing the public how they could help, as well as how donations were being utilised following the disaster.

Outcomes and On-Going

The crisis communications program lasted well into 2020, with many long-term recovery elements still on-going as part of a long-term recovery program. By April 2020, approximately 142 pieces of press coverage were initiated by the team, securing a total of 19.1 million impressions.

Additional spikes in coverage have been secured by the team, such as the release of Anwen (the first female joey admitted to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital during the fires) back into her natural habitat, as well as a partnership with Destination NSW that saw the Today Show’s weather team present from the hospital.

While the crisis has passed, our work continues. We’re excited to support the roll-out of the Koala Hospital’s wild breeding program, which was brought forward 10 years ahead of schedule due to the world’s generous donations.

The most significant return from the crisis was the continued deepening of our relationship with Port Macquarie-Hastings Council. We’ve not only achieved exemplary coordination between our teams, but we’ve also taken on tourism development for the region as we assist local operators to distribute their tourism product and capture the attention of possible visitors.