The journalism world can’t stop talking about Britain’s latest scandal which involved the hacking of a teenage murder victim’s phone messages. The scandal has already resulted in the demise of one of Britain’s oldest tabloid newspapers, The News of the World. There have been several criminal charges. There have been resignations of news executives and even of the head of Scotland Yard. The British government has started two investigations that may change the face of journalism in England, North America and Australia.
It’s a major crisis, amplified by two things; a slow summer news cycle and journalists’ hatred and mistrust of all things Rupert Murdoch. Reporters (and many politicians) have long been having fits over Murdoch’s right-leaning media outlets such as Fox News. In Britain, he was regarded with fear and suspicion by all aspiring political leaders.
I’m reluctant to write about a story that still has so many scenes to play out but others have already begun to comment on how the crisis is being handled. In doing so, they confuse the illegalities that may have been committed with the crisis response. To what extent Murdoch or his companies are guilty is a different issue than how they handle the allegations. Here are five things he did right in trying to bring the crisis under control;
- He acted quickly. By shutting down The News of the World, he eliminated a target of outrage and was seen to be doing something proactive to fix the situation. Many have questioned his real motive but the newspaper that is alleged to have committed the illegal and egregious acts is no more. He can make the case that it will never happen again.
- He didn’t act too quickly. Many were demanding that he fire his UK newspaper head Rebekah Brooks on the day the scandal broke. But throwing a high ranking executive under the bus early only makes people demand the head of the next highest executive and that’s what happened as the attention shifted to his son and heir-apparent James Murdoch. But when it was clear Brooks would be arrested, of course she had to go.
- He apologized sincerely. In an unprecedented move, he visited the family most affected by the phone hacking scandal in person to say he was sorry. The family’s lawyer described Murdoch as “humbled” and “shaken” and confirmed that he apologized many times to the family. Remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Instead of visiting the fishermen whose livelihood was destroyed, CEO Tony Hayward retreated to his private yacht and complained that he wanted his “life back”.
- He’s working with authorities to fix the situation. Both Murdoch and son James agreed to appear before lawmakers and answer questions. Yes, he initially refused but that was the lawyers talking. Things changed when he hired multinational PR firm Edelman Communications. Lawyers worry about liability, crisis communicators worry about credibility.
- He hired professionals. When a crisis hits CEO’s run to their lawyers and that is obviously what Murdoch did as well. As things worsened, however, it became apparent that the reputational damage to him and to his companies could be huge. He turned to communications professionals and the strategy changed from avoidance to accepting responsibility. Lawyers don’t like apologies because they indicate culpability but they are a first step to rebuilding reputation.