For those of us who consider journalists a key stakeholder group, we view scandals involving media outlets with almost a salacious fascination. We look for the names of people we know or recognize, we speculate endlessly about what the events mean to the future of the media and to our own personal strategies and tactics. The truth is, most of the time media outlets are surprisingly tone deaf when a crisis lands on their own doorsteps. This is because the number one goal of a crisis is fundamentally at odds with what most media moguls see as their purpose in life. In a crisis, the goal is to make sure that, as President Lincoln would say, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” But every reporter and editor in his/her soul, wants every word that we write to be long remembered.
As a former reporter who now looks at the media from a big data perspective, I can tell you that if most of the bad press hits on days one and two, and then fades away to page 10, chances are that the crisis will be soon forgotten. If it remains a page one story for a month, chances are pretty good that it will linger in people’s memories for a long time.
In the past year, both Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (no relation to my employer News Group) and U.K.’s BBC have spent considerable amount of time on Page 1. But how each company approached the crisis will have a long term impact on how much their respective brands are damaged by the crisis.
The scandal began with charges of phone hacking on the part of News Corp’.s subsidiary, News of the World. Initially the company took swift action, closing the News of the World, publicly apologizing via ads in British newspapers, and withdrawing its bid to take over BSkyB. But after public testimony that revealed a fundamental defiance and refusal to acknowledge the breadth of the problem, the scandal continued in the news, eventually impacting the reputation of News Corp. around the world, embroiled many of Britain’s most powerful politicians and ultimate leading to 90 arrests so far.
The scandal at the highly regarded British Broadcasting Company started with revelations that James Saville, a long-time BBC children’s program host, had a reputation for engaging in pedophilia, routinely harassing young girls. The revelations surfaced after Saville’s death, and the BBC was in the process of producing a documentary airing the facts when the investigative report was axed and replaced with a tribute show. Now the public is questioning whether BBC’s culture was responsible—one that may have turned a blind eye to sexual harassment. Finally, another story of child abuse at the highest levels falsely accused conservative peer Lord McAlpine of involvement in child abuse based on unsubstantiated Internet posts. In the wake of all these events, BBC Direct General George Entwistle resigned after just two months on the job. And while that action signaled a willingness to change, lingering doubts about the stultified culture at the BBC are making the British public, who pay for the BBC via a licensing tax, question the entire institution. And, like the crisis at News Group, it doesn’t stop at Britain’s shores. During the same week the previous Director General, Mark Thompson, assumed the role of president and chief executive of The New York Times, and the tarnished reputation of his former employer now threatens the Gray Lady herself. PRN
|Extent of coverage||F||Like any organization, the media loves to report bad news about a competitor, so it is hardly surprising that coverage of News Corp.’s woes were widely reported around the world.||Never forget the role that your competitors will play in the dissemination of bad news about you.|
|Effectiveness of spokespeople||F||In all their widely publicized testimony to the Parliamentary committee investigating the phone hacking, News Corp. executives appeared more defiant than apologetic, thus cementing the image that they were trying to buy their way out of a problem.||The cardinal rule of repairing a crisis is to be mortified about your own role in it, show compassion and offer solace and/or compensation to the victims. The compensation element isn’t nearly as important as the apology.|
|Communication of key messages||F||It was never clear what News Corp.’s key messages really were, other than they wanted to stay in business. Clearly every word had been pre-screened by a lawyer, thus diminishing the credibility of those words.||Credible messaging is critical in any crisis. Pretty much anything the company in crisis has to say will be doubted, especially if sounds like corporate speak. Frank and honest admissions of failure, in natural, authentic words are much more effective|
|Management of negative messages||F||The negative messages about News Corp. have spread far beyond just the corporation it but have now tainted the entire conservative Tory party in the U.K.||The problem with bad communications in a crisis is that by its nature enables negative messages to proliferate.|
|Impact on stakeholders||B||News Corp.’s stock price initially took a major hit when the scandal broke, but has since recovered to prior levels. Customers initially objected to the closing of News of the World, but soon found acceptable substitutes.||When calculating the cost of a crisis, the decline in shareholder value needs to be taken into account. No public company today can avoid some sort of stock decline when a crisis hits. The only question is, how long will it go on? The worse the communications, the longer the reputation will be at risk.|
|OVERALL SCORE||D||News Corp.’s lawyer-heavy response to the crisis certainly prolonged the skepticism about its role in the phone hacking scandal.||Do everything you can to ensure that whatever happens in a crisis will be little noted and long forgotten.|
|Extent of coverage||F||Even more than News Corp., BBC has an enormous presence around the world, serving as the primary source of unbiased news in many developing countries, so it is not surprising that when it is the subject of news it gets covered worldwide.||When faced with a crisis, never forget that the more successful you are in spreading awareness of your brand around the world, the broader the coverage you will receive if and when a crisis hits.|
|Effectiveness of spokespeople||D||To date the BBC has yet to come up with an effective spokesperson. Both George Entwistle and his predecessor Mark Thompson have spoken only in guarded, heavily scripted tones. Because no one has come forward as a credible spokesperson, ex-employees are now acting as spokespeople.||If you don’t have a credible spokesperson who can speak with compassion and conviction in a crisis, the media will naturally gravitate to the most authentic, frank person they can find. As a result, your messages will be buried by quotes from more interesting people.|
|Communication of key messages||B||The BBC’s much beloved status has stood it in good stead in this crisis. As media reports emerged, most cited the BBC’s credibility and long-standing reputation for reliable journalism.||Solid responsible performance as an organization can lead to large regular deposits into your “Trust Bank” and it is that bank of trust that will determine how soon the public will forgive you in a crisis.|
|Management of negative messages||C||Because they lacked a credible spokesperson, the negative messages quickly leaked out. Reports of a systematic tolerance of sexual harassment and the BBC’s bureaucratic structure could easily be blamed for the crisis.||Negative news loves to fill a void. If you don’t have a solid communications strategy, with a credible spokesperson in front of the media on a regular basis, your enemies will be happy to fill in the gaps with all the worst messages about you.|
|Impact on stakeholders||D||The BBC depends on the goodwill of the British public for its livelihood. As long as British citizens are happy paying the BBC licensing fee, they will remain in business. The public is outraged about the scandal, and ultimately could begin to object to the fees if the situation is not quickly corrected.||Even if you don’t have shareholders, you need to keep the impact on all stakeholders top of mind when you consider your options for responding to a crisis. Whether it is your best employees, your customers, contributors or online advocates, all can switch allegiance in a heartbeat if you betray their trust in you.|
|Overall score||C||The BBC scandal has yet to play itself out in full, so it still has a chance at redemption, but fast action and more credible authentic spokespeople will be critical.||When you observe a crisis moving beyond bad news on day one or two, you need to take very fast action to identify the cause and fix the problem, or else your actions and words will be long remembered and not easily forgotten.|
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Katie Paine is chief marketing officer of News Group and chairman/founder of Salience/KDPaine & Partners.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.