News International’s reputation crisis – numerous lessons in what not to do

News International’s fascinating reputation crisis has highlighted so many issues about crisis management it is hard to know which to focus on in a blog giving tips. Meanwhile, the story keeps developing faster than I can keep up – which is typical of crises that are mismanaged. And that is lesson one:

Take control from the start. News International lost the chance to be in control – by not taking it from the start and that’s the first crucial and critical aspect of good crisis management, when a crisis blows. You can only do that if you anticipate the worst and mitigate against it. From News International’s point of view, the worst must be what is happening now – a problem with one publication in its stable has ended up shaking the worldwide reputation of the whole of News Corp. News International has been dodging the worst since the issue of phone hacking first arose. It hoped a couple of seemingly dramatic steps (Clive Goodman’s arrest and imprisonment; Glenn Mulcaire’s arrest and imprisonment) would convince us that it had got rid of the causes of their misdeeds. The problem is that the public suspected that they were acting on higher orders; someone sanctioned their behaviour, and that someone is still somewhere in News Corp. And that leads to lesson two:

Token gestures do not work. The sacking of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? The announcement of an internal inquiry didn’t go far enough – and didn’t we all suspect that? Rebekah Brooks, it has just been announced, is now not going to lead that internal enquiry – and didn’t we know all along that she shouldn’t? Closing the News of the World ends its 168-year history – but aren’t we all questioning the integrity of all Murdoch titles, indeed all Murdoch media businesses? And that leads to lesson three:

Take swift, decisive action. If the sackings of the wrongdoers had been followed by significant shifts in policy which were then put into action, this crisis might have been avoided. It looks, though, as if the corruption was so endemic that it was impossible to stop it without closing the title. If that had been done then, when the issues first arose, the damage to News International would have been much less. Yes, there would have been a media frenzy. Yes, politicians would have spoken out. But some voices would have been supportive – and the impact much less as a result. And that leads to lesson four:

Consider those you might affect: A crisis in any organisation or business will have an impact on others. Some will be friends and some foes; your aim must be to win public support from friends and to keep foes quiet. Well, didn’t the News of the World do well. It’s hard to find any friends who have not turned into foes and those who have spoken out have had an enormous impact including big brand advertisers, charity partners and shareholders; we have yet to see what effect it has had on its readers. But it has had a much wider impact on organisations that were already in a weak position: threatening the future of the Press Complaints Commission (long due a wholesale overhaul); dragging the integrity of the Metropolitan Police into the open, yet again (long due a wholesale overhaul); raising serious questions about political friendships and contributions (long due a wholesale overhaul). It has thrown doubt on the prime minister’s judgement (not just about appointing Andy Coulson but also about forging links with editors). It will undoubtedly raise questions about other tabloids and whether they always tell the truth (we know they don’t). It is not inconceivable that others of its newspapers – wherever they are published – could be at risk. We know that it has affected News Corp’s bid for BSkyB. It will affect the public’s view of James Murdoch (who has stepped in to try to shift the image of the crisis but been unconvincing). And it will make people question the business ethics of Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, her husband Matthew Freud and his business Freud Communications (whose approach to crisis management has not always been the best). Which leads to lesson five:

Be wary of forging alliances: Having the support of big names – celebrities, brands, decision-makers – is inevitable; it adds credibility and draws attention. But it has a flip side; it’s the reverse of considering those you might affect: it’s about how your allies might affect your reputation if they do something wrong or inappropriate. That’s why Ford, the Royal British Legion and others have withdrawn their support; they cannot afford to be dragged down by News International’s dodgy reputation. And that leads to lesson six:

It takes years to build a reputation – and a second to destroy it. Of course, you could argue that the News of the World’s 168 year reputation was always as a distributor of sleaze – but millions read it (including, for several years many years ago, me) and millions loved it (including, for several years many years ago, me). It punctured puffery – but it failed when it failed to puncture its own. And that leads to lesson seven:

Don’t get too big for your boots. We see it over and over again. Success, or being surrounded by yes-men or being courted by the great and the good, makes people feel invincible. Peter Mandelson, Gordon Ramsay, Tony Hayward, Hosni Mubarak, Fergie, the Pope, HMRC, British Airways, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks … they all faced crises because they behaved as if they were above it all. And that leads to lesson eight:

It’s all about trust. For decades, dinner party chat has been about Murdoch, his approach and his publications – and not in a good way. The public does not trust Rupert Murdoch. We see politicians toadying up to him and his editors, and we don’t like it. We see a man consumed and convinced by his own self-importance, and we don’t like it. We see a business empire getting ever larger, with fewer controls from outside, and we don’t like it. We see him protecting editors and others even when there is evidence that they were implicated, and we don’t like it. Because, just as we all believe in the freedom of the press and their role to tell us what others are trying to hide, we don’t like having the wool pulled over our eyes by people whose role it is to expose the truth, but who lie themselves. We knew there was worse to come and that it extended well beyond the News of the World; we had little trust. Which leads to lesson nine:

Face the music. The most striking image of all throughout this saga was the one of Rupert Murdoch – a media man who knows the rules – when he said “no comment” – the biggest sin in media management – when door-stepped by journalists. When you say nothing, the only inference people will make is that you have something to hide. We all know that there must be more to come. Much more. We’ve had fudge, denial, pretence, lies. We’ve even had Rebekah Brooks claiming to be on holiday every time a problem arose (as if that means she is not ultimately responsible). They have not worked. They never work. They do not build trust. They will always be exposed. Which leads to lesson 10 which is, in reality and always, lesson one:

Be honest, open and transparent: It’s the only mitigation factor that works – and it works every time.

The question is: will we ever get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from News International?

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Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

Why is it that some people find it so hard to say sorry? There are three issues raging away as I write this: the Pope’s visit to England; the trapped Chilean miners; and the computer cock up over at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). All of them involve, to some degree, the all too frequent failure of people or organisations to say sorry. I’ll deal with the first two in separate posts. This is about the English tax man giving us another reason to treat him as a hate figure.

It was, in fact, all the computer’s fault. The massively expensive computer system that calculates our tax liabilities – and which everyone but the ministers and civil servants who run the computer contract believed would go wrong – did go wrong. Lots of people have not paid enough tax. Quite a lot of people paid too much. HMRC announced the fact, and details of how it would rectify the problem, without expressing any sympathy for the people who will have to stump up their unexpected shortfalls.

In the middle of a deep recession, and with the government emphasising at every opportunity that we have to be prepared for deep cuts, the common sense response from the vast majority of tax payers was a metaphorical shrug. They saw a structural problem (a useless computer system) was the cause, realised that if they’d been on the winning side they’d have wanted their refunds so, from the losing side, understood they’d have to do their bit. At least HMRC would take the money in stages, easing the pain.

But a simple “sorry” was missing. And that gave the media a chance to whip up a story of outrage.

This is how it goes – time after time after time. If you make a mistake, not saying sorry gives your opponents a chance to niggle away having spotted a weakness. Your reputation comes under attack and, guess what … you end up saying sorry – for even more mistakes. Just as HMRC did this week:

“I know how to apologise, I’ve had to do it before. I did not do it then and I am sorry for that,” said Dave Hartnett, head of HMRC. Well, it’s a sort of apology, in a roundabout way, and hardly the fulsome, hands-up surrender we all wanted.

If you want to emerge from a crisis with your reputation enhanced, rather than in tatters, say sorry – and say it at the start. As I said in an earlier post, an apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt. Saying “sorry it happened” is not the same as saying “sorry, I did it”. In the case of HMRC, it was guilty – and still it didn’t say sorry. And we now hate the tax man even more.

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