By Allan Biggar
Containing and communicating your way out of a crisis always needs to address the root cause of the problem; closing the News of the World was needed, but is not the panacea Rupert Murdoch is searching for.
In this article Senior Crisis Communications expert Allan Biggar looks at the next steps for News Corporation, News International and ultimately Rupert Murdoch.
“Thank you and Good bye” reads the final headline on the last edition of the News of the World, after the announcement to close one of Britain’s most popular ‘red top’ newspapers, after 168 years of publication.
The Wapping based tabloid was forced to close following the public outcry over allegations of phone tapping of murder victims, the families of war dead and celebrities by investigative journalists working for the paper.
Some commentators have suggested that Rupert Murdoch’s decision to close his most profitable newspaper, in the process making several hundred people unemployed, but allowing Rebecca Brooks to remain at the helm of News International was ‘cynical.’
A ploy to maintain the media moguls hegemony over the British media industry by containing the story to the News of the World and avoiding contagion of other popular titles such as The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times.
This rapid decision to close the News of the World did not placate the public and advertisers’ dissatisfaction with the Murdoch owned press, who potentially could boycott its sister publications the longer this situation continues.
News Corporation’s takeover of BSkyB is unlikely to happen now, despite the radical move by its subsidiary company News International to close the News of the World. Ofcom are likely to rule that News Corporation does not meet the criteria of all public service broadcasters being fit and proper persons.
So what options are left for Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp and News International organisations? How can his organisation withstand the current onslaught of criticism and begin to win back the public and advertisers alike?
Firstly, the most pressing issue is the senior leadership at News Corporation and News International. They must go, in particular Rebecca Brooks and James Murdoch, the heir apparent to the Murdoch media empire.
This will send a clear message that as an organisation there is to be whole scale change. This can only come from the top down. It demonstrates to the editors of other News International titles; who will no doubt be very nervous that their own actions may soon come under scrutiny, that there is to be a new direction for all publications in terms of ethical standards and practices.
This also needs to happen in order to sever all ties with senior executives that were complicit in phone hacking and the bribery of police officers, either through direct sanctioning of it or knowledge. News International would do well to distance itself from the actions of individual employees ahead of a full independent inquiry, of which the scope and powers are yet to be decided.
The Labour opposition have demanded that any inquiry into the issue be chaired by a senior judge, who will have the power to call witnesses under oath. The Government has yet to agree to this, but as public outrage grows and the Labour opposition successfully land more and more punches on a shell-shocked Government who will likely agree.
There is no doubt that the revelations that will follow will be damaging for News International, so in order to limit this high profile sackings of those responsible must happen before the inquiry.
But will Rupert Murdoch sacrifice his son for the good of the organisation? Quite possibly, business interests come first with Murdoch and on all accounts this is a business decision. For Brooks, her position becomes more and more untenable by the day, and she is likely to jump before she is pushed.
The new CEOs of News Corporation Europe and Asia and News International will then need to begin securing the future viability of all other profitable titles, as well as manage the fallout from the BSkyB bid.
The Sunday edition of The Sun is a shrewd move, as it will fill the vacuum left by the News of the World on Sunday, through its novelty, strong brand recognition and former readership likely to move over to it.
It will also seek to capture some readers from rival publications such as The Mirror.
A Sunday edition could prove too attractive for advertisers to ignore. Advertisers will more than likely be reticent to associate their brands with News International publications, although over time they more than likely return if readership if high.
On managing the possibility of future contagion, News International will need to put integrity and ethical accountability at the top of the agenda.
A commitment by these publications to adhere to strident guidelines laid down by them and to bring in wider societal buy in, that of the public will help to demonstrate their role as a source of public information and public service.
The industry itself will most likely undergo a root and branch review on its practices; more executives are likely to be revealed as sanctioning phone tapping and or involvement in other subversive and unethical practices to secure a story.
This challenge presents News International with the opportunity to become the first tabloid to demonstrate its ethical practices through a binding code of conduct for all employees, even those at the top.
The Press Complaints Commission is likely to be given greater regulatory powers to close papers as well as issue sanctions, or could be replaced altogether with a more dominant regulatory body. By beginning this process of ethical reform and greater oversight, it is likely that the new regulator will not seek to take any News International publications to task as rigorously, if they have been seen and found not to have implemented a thorough review of their operations and adhere to a strict professional code.
Finally, there needs to be a clear admission of culpability from Rupert Murdoch, together with a clear vision statement of what will guide all his publications in the future. It should include a reference to an inherent code of conduct that runs across all their operations.
If Rupert Murdoch thinks he has done enough to contain this crisis at present, he’s wrong. Worst case scenario would see News International die by one thousand cuts, as allegations come out the wood work and start to drag other publications into the spotlight. What will then follow is a haemorrhaging of advertisers that would spell the end for News International.
Allan Biggar is the Chairman of All About Brands a leading communications agency. He is the former Chairman of global PR firm Burson-Marsteller.