Murdoch’s quandary a result of ignoring early warning signals

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Rupert Murdoch’s PR machine  now appears to have gone into full swing. Caught underestimating the impact of the phone hacking scandal Rupert Murdoch is now trying to regain control in the crisis that is now threatening to undo his empire.

This is a case made for Crisis Management aficionados who are always looking for a case study. This one has it all.

 

 

Crisis become what they are when early warning signals are ignored and therefore not acted on. At the News of the World early warning signals of unethical behavior – the hacking of phones – was already well-known for some years.

 

The signals became much four years ago when Andy Coulson resigned as News of the World editor in 2007, after his former royal editor and a private detective were convicted of conspiracy to hack into the voice mails of the Royal family. When handing in his resignation, he insisted he had been unaware of the crimes and he was, strangely, not charged at the time.

After last year’s election, David Cameron became prime minister -and  appointed Coulson as his communications director. But when the scandal reignited in January Coulson resigned as Cameron’s spokesman.

Alarm bells should have been ringing at News of the World and at News Corp, Murdoch’s holding company for his media empire. Crisis managers would call this an emergency situation, where top management has to intervene decisively in a timely manner. Or the situation can easily spiral out of control.

But Murdoch and his top advisors were in denial and nothing was done to isolate and remedy the problem. News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and Murdoch’s heir apparent, his son James, remained aloof, untouchable and seemingly, to the outside world at least, unconcerned.

Then two weeks ago the emergency situation turned into a crisis when it was revealed that News of the World reporters had illegally eavesdropped on the phone of a missing girl, Milly Dowler, and deleted some of her messages to make room for more. She was later found dead.

Even then, Murdoch was slow to respond. If he had acted immediately then by apologizing, firing Brooks and perhaps his son as well and outlined the steps he would take to remedy the situation, the outcome could have been different.

But Murdoch didn’t act fast. It took him a week after the crisis erupted before he decided to close down the 168-year old News of the World. Even then he stuck by Brooks and refused to accept her resignation.

It was only on Friday, nearly two weeks since the crisis erupted, that Murdoch swung into action. He accepted the resignation of Brooks and her predecessor Les Hinton. He also visited the family of the late Milly Downer to apologize.

And on Saturday – 12 days after the crisis occurred – Murdoch placed prominent “We’re Sorry” advertisements in newspapers which read:

We are sorry

The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected….

On Saturday he ran more advertisements.

In moments of crisis, those at the center of the storm, as expressed so eloquently by Andrew Carapiet of Media Friendly, should express the 3Rs. Regret, Reason and Remedy.

Murdoch did express Regret, but he did a big mistake by doing so only in a letter, well advertised as it was. This is because people judge a person’s contrition emotionally. They want to see Murdoch in the flesh or on video apologizing, subconsciously they will not be convinced by Murdoch unless they can judge him not so much by what he says but by how he speaks – his body language, his voice, his eye contact. In short the hundreds of micro cues that tell us on a subconscious level whether he’s truly contrite and deserving of our empathy and forgiveness. Anything short of this is fatal for someone in Murdoch’s position.

His expression of the Reasons behind the crisis were cursory and, IMHO, not enough. Given the gravity of the situation he should not just have stopped with the written word and the brevity of advertising copy. He would have done well to have gone on air, perhaps with a sympathetic journalist who can ask him questions and allow him to elaborate on what went wrong. Two weeks is enough time for him to have some facts ready.

The third R, Remedy, was also hinted at in Murdoch’s advertisement copy:

In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us.

Again, this was too little too late.

The consequence of Murdoch’s dithering will be terrible. As I write this Rebekah Brooks apparently has been arrested. On Tuesday Murdoch and James will face the wrath of Parliamentarians, a wrath particularly vicious because in the past they have toadied up to Murdoch and Rebekah. Murdoch’s empire stands to unravel. His son James will have is hopes of succeeding his father at the helm of News Corp. dashed.

It is hindsight but it would not bee to blithe to say that things would probably not have become so severed if Murdoch and the News Corp has paid attention to, and acted on the early warning signals in the first place.

Murdoch’s campaign of apologies continues with new ads

By the CNN Wire Staff
July 17, 2011 6:39 a.m. EDT

London (CNN) — Rupert Murdoch’s British media empire said Sunday it would “not tolerate wrongdoing” and was determined to rebuild its reputation in the face of widespread anger at accusations of eavesdropping on voice mails and bribery of police.

News International said it would compensate those affected by its illegal phone hacking, cooperate fully with the police, and hired a law firm to “examine past failings” and recommend new procedures to make sure they are not repeated.

The promise comes in national newspaper advertisements in all the major Sunday British newspapers — a group that this week does not include the News of the World for the first time in 168 years.

Murdoch closed the paper last week, less than a week after it came out that reporters working for him had illegally eavesdropped on the phone of a missing girl, Milly Dowler, and deleted some of her messages to make room for more. She was later found dead.

Media baron Murdoch apologized to the British public with full-page advertisements in seven national newspapers Saturday.

He signed Saturday’s ads, but not Sunday’s.

“We are sorry,” says Saturday’s ad, which was signed by Murdoch.

“The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred. We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected.”

Story continues here

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    Alarm bells should be ringing in the Coalition. It really is time for David Cameron to resign. He has personally been closely involved with the people behind this terrible scandal.

    Like

  2. unspun says:

    @Bill: You are right. Alarm bells SHOULD be ringing there too. Subject for another post, I suppose.

    Like

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