Seeing PR sense behind latest News International events

rebekahbrooksThe announcement this morning that News International CEO Rebekah Brooks had resigned provoked near-universal applause on Twitter, from what I could see in my content stream. It was also reported in mainstream media around the world, illustrating quite clearly how significant this is beyond the UK.

This and related events today look like the result of some wise counsel that must include public relations advice by PR firm Edelman which was appointed by News Corporation on July 13 to provide "general comms support and public affairs counsel."

The phrase "fast-moving events" is nowhere more applicable at the moment than to what’s happening in relation to this still-unfolding story that began with the News of The World newspaper and illegal phone hacking, embroiling News Corporation – owner of News International – and its ambitions for building out its global media empire with a bid to acquire all of pay-TV satellite broadcaster BSkyB, a plan ultimately scuppered a few days ago.

At the heart of it has been the central cast of characters ranging from Rupert Murdoch to Prime Minister David Cameron and other politicians, to murder victims’ families and to the Metropolitan Police; and now to the USA and the FBI where allegations have surfaced about hacking into the phone records of families of 9/11 victims by NOTW journalists.

Beyond all, though, has been Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News International and editor of the newspaper during much of the time when the phone hacking is alleged to have occurred. If ever an individual was vilified in the media – mainstream and social – metaphorically pelted with rotten tomatoes in the marketplace of public opinion, and reputationally stoned to near-death, it is Mrs Brooks.

Add to this the situation just yesterday where Murdochs senior and junior declined an invitation to appear before the Parliamentary select committee investigating the phone hacking affair, resulting in a summons to appear next Tuesday.

Also add Rupert Murdoch’s interview yesterday in the Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp) in which he largely dismissed the phone hacking affair as a minor issue, and you can see how outrage, disgust and genuine public anger would not diminish any time soon.

So add all this together and you have a strong sense of looming disaster, one of a train wreck about to happen, as my American friends might say, that presented a clear and present danger to News Corporation.

On the face of it, Brooks’ resignation looks like a final acceptance of the reality of what’s happening: her position has appeared increasingly fragile as each day passed and as revelations alleging dirty deeds continued to surface, notwithstanding the support her boss Rupert Murdoch has publicly given her.

Yet it looks to me as if a shift has occurred in the past few days, one that appears to show a better grip on reality. It’s marked by a number of little things that make a big picture, such as:

  • The turn-around regarding the Parliamentary select committee – the arrogance of James Murdoch’s initial response to the invitation by saying he wasn’t available is replaced by a more humble and willing response to the subsequent summons (although I expect cynics would argue that his options were a bit limited at this point).
  • The focus of James Murdoch’s announcement to employees of the appointment of a new CEO, not focused on the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, marks a not-so-subtle change in position that says very clearly that "solv[ing] the problems at News International relating to the News of the World" is a priority. The overall wording demonstrates some long-overdue humility along with clear and confident statements about the future of the company under new leadership.
  • News International is to "apologize to the nation" with a full-page advertisement in every UK national newspaper this weekend. This action was mentioned in the employee announcement, in which James Murdoch says, "We will follow this up in the future with communications about the actions we have taken to address the wrongdoing that occurred."
  • Rebekah Brooks statement to employees about her resignation also struck a humble tone that made her words seem more credible and believable. While the statement is unlikely to warm the hearts of her many critics, the statement is online and no doubt will be widely repeated and quoted from.

It may just be coincidence, of course, that some effective planning seems to have invaded News International’s and News Corp’s public relations and overall approach to communication since Tuesday. So my speculatory comments about the ‘Edelman effect’ may be just that: speculation.

Still, whatever the effect, a communication shift has occurred as this story of fast-moving events moves to another level and as the central cast of characters evolves.

[Update @ 5.30pm] As you’d expect in this age of click-and-share, the full-page apology ad that will appear in all national newspapers tomorrow is already openly available online. I’ve seen it at a number of places; the best location I found is AdAge Mediaworks which has an actual copy they posted on Scribd.

Rupert Murdoch ‘sorry’ ad

(If you don’t see the document embedded here, see it at Scribd.)

And here’s the text:

We are sorry.

The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself.

We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.

We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected.

We regret not acting faster to sort things out.

I realise that simply apologising is not enough.

Our business was founded on the idea that free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.

In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us.

Sincerely,

Rupert Murdoch.

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