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Pie in the face: how PR and management could have helped News Corp do some dodging

Pie in the face: how PR and management could have helped News Corp do some dodging

This month, WS MENA’s Andreas Keller talks about why PR shouldn’t be used like pain reliever tablets and what happens when bad behaviour gets rewarded.

July 27, 2011 12:59 by

Unless you have been on a remote island, you have no doubt been exposed in one way or another to what is happening in the UK with media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his company, News Corporation.

Now I wasn’t initially going to do an article on this story as it been going on a while and several articles have already been written about it here. However, with some of the latest developments, this has turned into a better story than any scoop the News of the World has ever published. The scandal has shaken the UK to the very core of its society as it has exposed a history of collusion at the highest level, between the government, police and media. It’s now turned into a real PR story, with a new twist emerging every day, so I have really no choice but to take a closer look.

What triggered all this?
There is an old adage that says if you are a mosquito and you fly too close to a light bulb, you will get burnt. The News of the World and its journalists pushed the boundaries of what was not only legal, but of what was emotionally and ethically acceptable to many. Let’s face it, nobody really cared when celebrity phones were being hacked (they get paid enough to deal with it), but there was a sense of outrage when they started doing it to the general public, and not only to regular people, but those who had suffered and were victims of crimes. How ironic that Murdoch now finds himself at the center of a scandal that his own media outlets are used to covering.

Why only hire a PR agency when things go bad?
News Corp. in the UK hired renowned international PR agency Edelman and both Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks (former News of the World editor) have also PR’d up with different agencies. You would think people working in media at the highest level would know how to handle the media. Now News Corp. in the US is also shopping around for various types of PR services.

The question is how much of the agency’s PR counsel is taken on board given you have lots of different players involved in the decision making. Many times PR agencies are hired because it’s the right thing to do and you can tick a box, but their advice is not always followed. PR agencies should be viewed and used as long term business consultants that can manage your image and brand (and potentially help you avoid this type of embarrassment) not as pain reliever tablets that will make your headache go away. Instead they are brought in not at the start of the issue, but when things really start to go south. It’s like calling firemen when your house has almost burnt to the ground.

If you are aware of a problem, fix it early
Murdoch has taken a number of “by the book” PR steps -although the firing of Rebekah Brooks was done way too late- including meeting with the victims, issuing an apology and taking out apologetic advertising. PR best practice aside, there are some serious questions that need to be raised. Were the Murdochs aware of these illicit practices before they came to light and are they really sorry for what has happened? It will be interesting to see if any of this will impact his brand and affect the sale of his newspapers. He may escape legal punishment, but people won’t be so quick to forgive. If Rupert Murdoch knew that there were some fishy things taking place within some of his media companies, then he never really took decisive action to investigate it further and change the culture of his group. His son James Murdoch had previously made big payments to celebrities for phone hacking incidents so surely that should have been a big warning sign. Where there is smoke there is usually fire. In the week following the scandal, News Corp. lost 15 percent of its value and his early inaction contributed to that stumble.

Have the media overstepped their boundaries?
The phone hacking incident at News of the World has more seriously exposed the close ties the newspaper enjoyed with the police (bribes were involved) and the British government where a former editor of the paper was Prime Minister David Cameron’s Director of Communications, with access to very classified information. The interesting question this raises is; what role does the media play in society today? If they have the support of government authorities and the police, who is going to monitor what they do or even more importantly, hold them accountable? David Cameron was quoted at a press conference saying “The truth is we have all been in this together. The press, politicians and leaders of all parties — and yes, that includes me.”

A company’s behaviour reflects its leadership
This is the problem with breaking the rules. When everybody does it does that still make it illegal? At News of the World, it seems that the more corrupt and illegal stunts you pulled to get your story, the more promotions you received. It was ultimately the culture that was set by the paper’s management and the expectations of its senior staff. Get the story no matter what. People tend to get swept up into that thinking and lose track of where to draw the line. Just because many people know about it and are doing it does not make it legal. The line between right and wrong has never been thinner.

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