Lie now, pay later – James Murdoch sets his own trap

The news about News International gets worse by the day – so the crisis is nipping along nicely, as we’d all expected, and continues to be wholly outside the control of News International and the Murdochs. It’s the worst possible situation to be in.  And the Murdochs have only themselves to blame.

On Wednesday this week (2nd November) The Independent published new evidence that confirmed what we all suspected. James Murdoch was significantly economical with the truth when he was cross-examined by members of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee in July. He had indeed been warned about phone hacking at the News of the World and its implications but, instead of taking the only course that works – admitting it, apologising for not acting earlier, pledging not to let it happen again, and keeping his promise – he fell back on what he, I suspect, thought was a clever dodge that would let him off the hook: a selective loss of memory. He claimed he did “not recall” being briefed. He is not the first person caught in a crisis who has tried this tactic as an excuse for not taking responsibility. And he is not the first person to find it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because it shows two things: that you can’t be trusted (which will inevitably imply that the business can’t be trusted) and that you are not up to the job (powers of recall are essential in business, particularly if you have been told that something is “fatal to our case” and that the business’s position is “very perilous”). More importantly, it simply is not convincing. It is a euphemism for lying.

As every crisis management expert will tell you, lies – blatant lies or lies dressed up as artful dodges – will always come back to haunt you. Someone somewhere will be digging away trying to expose the truth and it will be found.

Lying is a desperate measure. People lie in everyday life – usually without thinking through the consequences – to get themselves out of sticky situations (and find it doesn’t work). In a crisis there is no room for acting without thinking through the consequences. You need to be considered, dispassionate, objective, thoughtful – and take a long view. That view is what is best for the business’s reputation for the long term – what you must do to minimise damage to it and allow you to rebuild it. There will be costs along the way (though, if you follow the rules, they ought not to be at the catastrophic level faced by News International) and you must pay them as they arise. There is no scope for a hire purchase approach when protecting a reputation. Buy now, pay later might be appropriate if you need a sofa but in a crisis, as James Murdoch has found out, it’s lie now – and you will pay later.

It will be fascinating to see if he comes clean – or continues to dodge – when he appears in front of the select committee next Thursday. this!

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