When a colleague asked recently what I would do if News Corp. were a client, I responded: "In the UK, I'd do nothing -- they made their bed a long time ago, and now they have to lie in it." And an imagined question directly to News Corp. executives: this wire-tapping has been tossed around for over four years; how could you allow it to crescendo into such a devastating crisis? You could have sought our counsel back in 2006.
Alas, we seldom have such an opportunity to get into the game prior to a crisis. But what actions, if any, could help resurrect News Corp.'s reputation in the UK, criminal proceedings notwithstanding? For a company facing this much fallout, it would take a massive overhaul of staff, a great deal of public groveling, and the creation of the strictest code of ethics one has ever seen in media. And even then, I'm not sure how much good it would do.
With zero credibility and so many changes needed, it's better to start afresh.
The U.S. News Corp. Problem
The problem at the WSJ irks me -- not at the publication itself, as I feel it is comprised of hard-working, ethical journalists, and editors -- but because of Murdoch's ill-fated decision of allowing longtime friend (and News Corp. veteran) Les Hinton to become CEO of Dow Jones in 2007. By letting Hinton cross the pond, Murdoch provided one (and as far as we know, the only substantial) link to the wiretapping scandal in Britain.
Until 2007, Hinton was executive chairman of News International, publisher of News of the World. After the 2006 wiretapping scandal involving Clive Goodman, royal editor of News of the World, Hinton told parliament there was no widespread involvement in wiretapping. Okay, fine: an illegal embarrassment under Hinton's watch dies down, Goodman is jailed, and the scandal is confined within the U.K. Now we come to my issue with Murdoch.
Why would anyone who just dodged a bullet -- or a rain of bullets, for that matter -- send a tainted newspaper publisher/CEO across the Atlantic to head an upstanding, nationally respected publishing company and its subsidiary newspapers? It doesn't matter whether Hinton had knowledge of the wiretapping in 2006 or not -- it happened while he was in control. It's unbelievable (not to mention foolhardy), and it's up to Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, and their public relations experts to do the damage control.
Let me be clear: I don't believe that there was any illegality involved here regarding Murdoch, Hinton, and The Wall Street Journal. It just wasn't a good idea in light of all the scandal that surrounded News International at the time.
The takeaway from all of this?
The business of public relations has as much to do about crisis prevention as it does about crisis management. Did Murdoch understand the potential jeopardy he was putting Dow Jones in? Did he ask anyone around him -- like, for example, the public relations team?
The Issue of TrustThis brings me to another point: trust in media, particularly broadcast media. Is too much trust, or loyalty in the media outlet of your choice, a good thing? What brings average viewers, presumably not being paid to advocate for "their" network, to adamantly defend it at all costs? On the other side, what motivates other people to spend hours attacking the credibility of a network?
The answer is politics, of course. After the rise of multiple twenty-four-hour cable news channels, audiences chose sides and networks somewhat obliged. Viewers tend to give more credibility to the network that skews to their political beliefs, whether it be Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN. Because of such loyalty, it would take a scandal of epic proportions -- a wiretapping scandal involving a sibling company in another country doesn't even scratch the surface -- to sway loyal U.S. viewers away from Fox News. Loyalty is a good thing for News Corp., Time Warner, and Comcast. They have succeeded in giving their news audiences the impression that they, the viewers, have a stake in the game.
Again, is it healthy? Probably not, but such loyalty is impressive.
This loyalty, coupled with the fact that American viewers really don't care what happens in the UK media, is why I give this story another few weeks' "play" in the States before it dies and gets buried by a bigger crisis -- like the debt ceiling.
There's a lesson here for public relations professionals. Once you help your client sway audiences -- once you aid them in creating warehouses of credibility with their customers -- those customers will go to bat for your client in the battle for public opinion. If you can get them to that point, you've succeeded; however, you should be scared when you've finally arrived. That client might no longer have a need for you.