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July 21, 2011
Lessons Learned from the Rupert Murdoch Scandal
News Corp. is on the verge of doing something not even its competitors could accomplish. It’s close to defeating itself.

Just like the fall of the Roman Empire came from within, Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire is now teetering on collapse based on a public relations scandal that keeps getting worse by the day.

For those who aren’t familiar with News Corp., Rupert Murdoch is arguably one of the most powerful men in the world with a global media empire that includes Fox News, Fox Business News, The Wall Street Journal, Fox Television Network, The New York Post, 20th Century Fox, Harper Collins, The Sun, The Sunday Times and, until recently, the British News of the World.

When it came to influencing minds, Murdoch held the ink and guided the pen.

The cracks in Murdoch’s concrete empire began to appear after allegations spread that reporters at News of the World had illegally hacked into the voicemails of the British Royal family and other crime victims. Soon, more allegations surfaced that Murdoch’s employees had paid British police for tips.

But this Rupert Murdoch scandal stretches beyond employee misconduct. It now has the potential to remove Murdoch from atop the empire he created. Bloomberg News is reporting that the News Corp. board could soon push Murdoch out as Chief Executive.

You don’t need to run a global media empire for this type of crisis communications scandal to impact your company. It only takes one rogue employee to get your corporation splashed on the front page of the news.

How would you respond if the media discovered your employees had engaged in illegal behavior while doing their job? Would you deny it? Blame someone else? Confront the truth?

Murdoch was forced to answer that question this week in front of a British Parliamentary Committee. He and his son James both used the same defense: they knew nothing, no one told them anything, and they didn’t ask. How could they be responsible for illegal behavior if they didn’t know it was taking place?

It’s a good legal defense, but the court of public opinion is just as influential. 

Unfortunately, there is no universal book that will give you the right answers to putting crisis communications in the best light. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to crisis communications. A response is specific to the situation, but here are a few rules that apply to all crises, regardless of their source.

1) Get to the bottom of the truth as quickly as possible. I don’t know if Murdoch knew whether his journalists had engaged in this unethical behavior, but he should have had those answers before he was called before the British Parliamentary. “I don’t know,” can be an acceptable response at the beginning of a crisis as long as it is followed up with “let me find the answers.” Reporters won’t walk away just because you can’t answer their questions, but they will give you time to research it. So if you are learning in real-time that your employees may have engaged in any unethical or illegal behaviors while doing their jobs, it is your job to get to the bottom of it.

2) Hold the Guilty Accountable. If you discover that your employees engaged in any illegal behavior, fire them. It sends a strong message that your company won’t condone any form of behavior that breaks the law. Likewise, many professions — like journalism — involve ethical standards. If you discover that your employees have violated any ethical codes while conducting their jobs, make an example out of them. In the News Corp. situation, heads have already rolled, including the editor of News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, and the former Executive Chairman of News International Les Hinton. Brooks, who had been a long-time and close confidante of Murdoch, resigned from the company after she was arrested on suspicion of phone hacking. The public is more forgiving once they realize it is less likely for your mistakes to happen again.

3) Be Open With Your Findings. You may not like what your employees did, but if reporters ask you specific questions, don’t be evasive with your answers. If you were shocked or disappointed by what you found, then allow yourself to be human and share your disappointment with the media. Contrition is a trait that makes us all relate to one another. You don’t have to get into the salacious details, but the public and reporters do deserve to hear the facts that your internal investigation uncovered. 

4) Be Prepared to Announce New Policies. If your internal investigation into the crisis discovers a systemic problem, now is the time to announce a change in policy. In the case with News Corp., they could have created a new news cycle by announcing a new, stricter code of ethics for journalists. The new code also would have outlined punishment, reinforcing the image that News Corp. will not accept any unethical behavior regardless of seniority or position. This new policy announcement also allows your organization to control more of the message by giving your spin on what you are doing to prevent this scandal from recurring.

If you learn your employees made mistakes on the job, don't reinforce their botched behavior with a poorly executed communications plan. This crisis communications advice isn’t just for business owners. It’s practical information that can apply to managers, political leaders, public personalities, or anyone who could become the face of a scandal.

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Mark Macias is the co-founder of BigBirdFans.com. He produces social media videos for all kinds of clients and consults on publicity campaigns. You can read more at www.MaciasPR.com.

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