Rupert Murdoch: PR perspective
There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Rupert Murdoch and the PR disaster that has been the News of the World hacking scandal.
I’d like to think that a man who has built a news empire would know how to handle the media, but at 80 years old it seems Rupert Murdoch has an equally dated approach to PR.
It was only a few weeks ago that Murdoch appeared to be a successful businessman and expected his company, the News Corporation, to takeover satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Since then Murdoch’s own British tabloid, the News of the World, has been shut down after 168 years as employees acknowledged they hired investigators to hack illegally into the phone accounts of British citizens in attempt to develop stories.
High-profile victims included the British Royal Family, family members of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2005 July London bombings, a 13-year-old murder victim, and various celebrities and politicians.
Although there has been no evidence that Murdoch was aware of the company’s illegal actions, public outcry and political backlash over the phone-hacking scandal left Murdoch in an interesting position; one which needed careful handling if Murdoch was to recover his reputation and retain his grip on his media conglomerate which he spent six decades building.
First rule in crisis communication: when in the wrong, put your hand up, say you’re sorry, and tell the public how you’re going to fix it. Alongside this, show genuine remorse and regret for your actions.
Murdoch got it wrong in the first place by not coming clean about the hacking scandal and illegal journalistic practices. He got it wrong in his first significant public comment with The Wall Street Journal, when he vigorously defended his company’s handling of the scandal and said his staff managed it “extremely well in every way possible.” Political and public suspicion was then made worse when Murdoch and his son James, initially failed to appear before the House of Commons, indicating they were unable to give sufficient evidence.
These actions combined found Murdoch in a big black hole, one which needed the help of PR giants, Edelman, to help get him out. It was more than a coincidence that Murdoch switched to apologetic mode hours after getting his PR act into gear.
Murdoch authorised full-page ads of apology in a competing British paper, met with the family of a murdered teenage girl whose phone had been hacked and accepted the resignation of two top executives, Rebekah Brooks, CEO of the British newspapers, (to whom he had previously remained immensely loyal), and Les Hinton, the chief executive of Dow Jones.
It’s all very similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that caused an environment disaster. BP’s management of the crisis comprised a series of errors, beginning with underplaying the issue with CEO Tony Hayward saying: "the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."
The issue was made worse when Mr Hayward refused to convey any regret and sympathy, leading to BP being criticised strongly by politicians and media around the world.
An example at the opposite end of the scale, where accepting responsibility and maintaining honesty helped to recover a reputation and the faith of the public, was New Zealand sports presenter, Tony Veitch. Veitch was forced to stand down from his high-profile role after he admitted assaulting his partner Kristen Dunne-Powell.
Mr Veitch was sentenced to nine months supervision, 300 hours community service and fined $10,000. His honesty and responsibility for his actions has enabled him to restore his career – he’s now hosting a frontline spot for Radio Sport.
In the end, honesty and integrity will be rewarded. Although this may not seem true in the beginning, with the right response you can recover stakeholder confidence in your ability to handle a crisis situation.
Time will tell whether Murdoch will be able to restore his reputation and continue leading the global media empire. In my opinion the biggest threat to Murdoch is not political or legal. It’s his Board of Directors and corporate stakeholders that have witnessed the crumbling of the Murdoch brand as a direct result of poor crisis management.
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