It is difficult to know what to post on the subject of the News Corporation ‘crisis’ without it sounding like cliche heaped upon cliche. But for someone who professes to teach public relations, and who has been known to provide counsel, I feel it would be remiss of me not to put some words together. My thoughts come in three broad themes.
IT NEED NOT HAVE BEEN A CRISIS:
In many instances, a crisis is not born of events themselves, but of an organisation’s reaction to those events. Indeed, it can be its “failure to meet the social norms and expectations of stakeholders” (Coombs, 2000, p.77).
Rupert, Rebekah and James have felt that it’s ‘okay’ not to have to answer for what has taken place on their watch, especially when it’s involved the families of murdered children, fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. To not feel the need to account for yourselves is almost as big a sin as the original crimes – thus compounding the crisis.
Almost childlike, they have felt that somehow, if they hide, it will go away. If they don’t engage in the basics of relationship management – whether through media relations, public affairs, internal communications or investor relations – it will blow over. Instead, they have just created bigger audiences for their original crisis, and added to their gripes.
A crisis demands “outside-in thinking”. Instead, we have just seen a bunker mentality.
Sacrificing the News of the World appears to be a reflex reaction, dressed up as thought through strategy. “If we throw the baying crowds a piece of meat, perhaps that will satisfy them, draw a line, and they will go away”. Except it still didn’t answer any of the questions people had about past wrong-doing, and instead destroyed a piece of the News Corp empire that arguably was working well. The News of the World need not have been closed down.
SHOCKING USE OF THE MEDIA FROM MEDIA PROFESSIONALS:
The three senior executives at the heart of the scandal have demonstrated a woeful understanding of the basics when it comes to their own use of the media, which has usually involved them shunning interview opportunities (adding to the air that they have something to hide), or running away from a pack of journalists and cameras (in the process, creating the most defensive of photo-opportunities).
This is from professionals (some of whom have been journalists themselves, so should know better) who lead some of the biggest media titles, many of whom are the catalyst for a crisis in organisation when they put allegations to them to ‘stand up a story’. You would think they would be the experts at knowing how to handle a crisis, having seen it from the inside? Think again.
Why no press conferences? Why after hiding from the press for so long do you give an interview to only one publication? Why do you have to resort to to advertising and letters to say your sorry? When did you stop being a human being?
JOURNALISM AND PR PROFESSIONALISM:
Building from the last point, it is a cautionary tale about organisations assuming that high-profile former journalists always make the best PRs. Some journalists make fantastic PRs – the ones that understand that the discipline is more than just media relations,and is about more than individual transactions. At its heart, PR is about reputation.
Whether it is media professionals’ shocking handling of the media themselves, or the arrest of journalists turned PRs for their alleged involvement in this ‘scandal’, public relations needs to maintain a constant eye over standards in its own profession. The discipline’s reputation itself is never that high – and the last thing it needs is to be brought into the eye of this storm by the actions of the likes of Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis.
While writing this blog, it has been announced that Rebekah Brooks has finally resigned as Chief Executive of News International. It may be a little late for the organisation to take control of the crisis, even though we have finally seen someone held accountable.
Which brings me to the rather limp reaction of University of the Arts, London to calls for them to strip Rebekah Brooks of the honorary degree they awarded her last year for her ‘contribution to journalism’. It was on behalf of constituent college, London College of Communication (LCC), from which Brooks originally graduated.
Rather than acknowledging the concern of academics, students and external audiences to how this award looks with hindsight, a university spokeswoman told the Guardian that they awarded honorary degrees to those judged to have made “considerable contributions to the creative and cultural industries“, while head of college at LCC, Sandra Kemp emailed all staff, warning it was inappropriate to comment while official investigations were ongoing (err… they will be for some time), and warning that all media inquiries should go to the university press office (err.. this to a college that includes countless journalism and PR students).
Excuse me, what about the bigger issues? Am I missing something here – isn’t the university worried about it’s association with what will become the biggest scandal of our generation. Perhaps the degree would be more aptly re-awarded for her contribution to causing a crisis?
With this year’s graduation ceremonies upon us, for the sake of avoiding its own crisis and denting its own reputation, London College of Communication/University of the Arts, London should withdraw her honorary degree. You can join the Facebook group here.
Coombs, T. (2000) Crisis management: Advantage of a relational perspective. In J.A Ledingham & S.D. Bruning (eds) Public Relations as relationship management: A relational approach to public relations (pp.73-93), Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.