Our guest blogger this week is risk communications expert Andrew Roberts, author (with Andrew Powell) of "The Lowdown: Dodging the Bullet - Effective Risk Communications". Here he analyses the strategy of News Corporation in their recent crisis management...
The UK ‘phone hacking’ or News of the World scandal, which appeared to be the 2000 Lbs. gorilla of a crisis, appears to have abated for now in the wake of two rather more significant crises: the worldwide financial meltdown (Take 2) and the UK riots. The spotlight is very much off News Corporation and the Murdochs, at least for now. However, for a while it was looking the like the most intriguing crisis to hit the UK for quite some time, a transatlantic tale of listening devices, private investigators and ill-advised appointments involving a celebrated roll call—A-list celebrities, 9/11 victims and, very much front and center, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
From my perspective, that of a risk communicator, the most interesting part of this crisis was the response of News Corporation, the performance of certain MPs in debates and committee hearings, and how risk communication strategies have been employed, or in most cases not, by the protagonists. Finally, in light of subsequent events, I am left to think, has it all been a storm in a UK teacup or has the crisis been dealt with in a successful way, buying it enough time to live out its half-life and be swallowed up by something all consuming? Will the phone hacking crisis provide case study material for crisis and risk communicators for years to come?
First of all, as a risk communicator I don't claim to be a crisis manager; the role of risk communication is mainly to prevent crisis, or at least limit its effects when it does occur. In this specific case, risk communication techniques have been used by key players, and effectively so, especially when viewed alongside the ad hoc emotional responses of many British MPs investigating.
The key to resolving crisis is rapid, effective action, accompanied by candid, open communications from those at the very top, usually the CEO or Chairman. In terms of action, the News Corporation crisis management team was timely and responsive and clearly appreciated that, sometimes, euthanizing a brand to limit damage and address public outrage is the only option left. Look at Pan Am following Lockerbie, or Firestone following their monumental tire crisis in the 90s. The News of the World, from the broad public perspective, had lost all shreds of integrity and hence credibility. Whilst the newspaper could have continued, its timely shut down pre-empted calls to do so, and thus the action could be seen as being entirely voluntary, a shrewd tactical move. Following some quite shocking examples of very public mishandling of crisis (many of which by UK companies), where calls to similar action following catastrophes were belligerently resisted, the News of the World closure was unexpected and rather decisive. The move also helped show News Corporation’s intent, as a vital trust determination factor, and in acknowledging their past mistakes (a key outrage management strategy) and moving forward towards a solution. Dismissal of key staff within the organization and carefully worded empathetic statements have all helped the company both tacitly acknowledge the public stress and outrage that has accompanied the news. At the same time and most significantly, far from hiding behind this action, both Rupert Murdoch and his son James have displayed complete commitment to be ‘hands on’ and confront the problems personally.
The Murdochs’ participation in the management of the crisis and its resolution (at least for now) have been made all the more straightforward by what appeared to be the ‘lynch mob’ mentality of numerous parties, from rival media outlets to British members of Parliament (MPs), seemingly frothing at the mouth to exploit the crisis to its full extent to both harm the reputation of News Corporation or score political points at the expense of David Cameron.
This is best illustrated by the performance of the Murdochs at the all-party committee hearings. They were calm, they did not look to address the extreme viewpoints and their displayed excellent nonverbal communications throughout. Contrast this behavior, known by risk communicators as “staking out the middle,” with the rather virtuous, baying for blood, ‘village hall heckler’ type performances of committee members.
From a risk communication perspective, the media reaction to the performance shows a complete lack of understanding of crisis management strategies and particularly those advanced strategies in media training to meet outrage, elicit empathy and most critically build trust. Take for example, BBC’s Hard Talk, interviewing their PR “guru,”
Interviewer: “It was a slightly bumbling performance; would you as a PR man brief Rupert Murdoch to perform in this way?”
PR Guru: “No, I just think that is the way he is.”
Well, this indeed may be true, but IF it was a strategy it was quite brilliant! If either of the Murdochs had come out with a glossy, teleprompt style presentation, it just would look like they were reading a prepared script (remember Tiger Woods’ press conference), but the fact that they went back and forth and referred questions to one another gave their responses genuine integrity. So their intent in being directly questioned, not hiding as many a CEO and Chairman has done in previous high profile cases, along with perceptions of integrity and honesty, really helped their trust determination, a key factor when the truth is simply not known.
Earl Spencer (the late Princess of Wales’ brother) appeared on the same programme and was asked if he had any sympathy for the Murdochs in light of the inquisition they faced. “No,” said Earl Spencer, “but I do have sympathy for anyone past their best.” Past his best or still at his best, only the Murdochs will truly know!
Whatever your opinion on the performance of the Murdochs, or indeed the prestigious spiking ability of Rupert Murdoch's former volleyball-playing wife, the ‘inquisition’ at the hands of the media and cultural committee, lasting 3 hours, was a resounding success for News Corporation. Investor confidence was bolstered and share price increased by 6%, and little damage was inflicting during what was for the most part an aggressive interrogation by Committee members who appeared to relish the chance of having the Murdochs in their crosshairs. The Murdoch family retuned to the US following the hearings; footage of them leaving in a G6 private jet did not show what must have been rather large smiles on their faces and champagne in their glasses.
Whilst some observers may point to long pauses, deferring of questions by Murdoch senior to his son, their nonverbal communications demonstrated concern, a willingness to cooperate and to answer questions honestly and openly. Their overall demeanor contrasted with that of the committee, many whom appeared rather over-eager to crucify the Murdochs, letting their anger clearly show in their facial expressions, tone of voice and the nature of questions raised. Of course, the whole spectacle of 14 people interrogating an elderly media mogul and his son did little to help the committee's cause but did much to build sympathy for the Murdochs. And it is this sympathy that is crucial in this case. The whole idea of a swath of would-be interrogators badgering just two people may appease those that despise the Murdochs and all they stand for but from a broader perception of building trust, it does little.
The committee’s credibility was further eroded by the use of ‘parliamentary privilege’ to attempt to incriminate CNN host Piers Morgan. When later challenged to repeat her allegations Ms XXXXX refused, rendering her earlier attack somewhat futile, and illustrating an important principle. If you are going to conduct a public meeting under the highest scrutiny, make sure you have a game plan, be prepared, acknowledge verbal and nonverbal communications and don’t let your anger spiral out of control! Those who are being questioned are likely to be just as, if not more, prepared than you and may well have vast resources at their disposal, all geared towards building perceptions of trust and sympathy in the public’s minds. At worst you at least have to make it look like it's a fair fight, otherwise its simply appears that you are just there to vent your frustrations, not get to the bottom of a very complex, perhaps unsolvable case.
Communication competence, both verbally and nonverbally, along with decisive action and well thought out risk communication strategies, can make all the difference in a crisis. In this case, News Corporation were able to emerge from a very public test of their character and competence with their heads held high, pockets intact and do enough to critically buy time. Every crisis has a half-life, in this case they did more than enough to buy enough time for media interest to be deflected elsewhere. In some crisis situations, this may be all that is needed to ensure that the bad news goes away for good. - Andrew Roberts
"The Lowdown: Dodging the Bullet - Effective Risk Communications" is published by Creative Content in both eBook and audio book formats.
Photo by robinsoncrusoe