Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Murky Murdoch And The News Corp.

(This article originally appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily, where I am a contributor)

A bit of distrust in the media is never a bad thing. It's good to keep people on their toes. For News Corp., however, a "little distrust" has turned into full-blown doubt and disgust for readers and viewers in the UK and just about everywhere else.

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?

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