In recent times, as the endless litany of claims of phone-hacking and other journalistic behaviour by journalists at the UK’s now closed ‘News of the World’ and other newspapers in the Murdoch UK stable have arisen, friends in the US and other countries have suggested that I blog on it.
I have not rushed to judgement, as each day seemed to bring forward worse claims than the one before. And also because, and here I declare an interest, my first job almost 40 years again was as a cadet journalist on ‘The Australian’ the national daily newspaper established by (Keith) Rupert Murdoch in the late 1960s. On that paper, I gained my first experience of journalism and rose to be a national correspondent and, at times, night news editor.
I remember “Rupert” (or “KRM”) as innovative, hard-nosed, and wanting his newspapers to be the best – the newsiest and top-selling. He could be ruthless but was also immensely loyal to many editors and managers who stayed with him as his empire expanded into the UK, US, India and China.
So I have always had a continuing regard for this very driven media entrepreneur who has built an empire from one daily paper in Adelaide, South Australia. But that doesn’t mean that I have accepted the behaviour of his more popular papers.
In the UK, it has been obvious for some years that the News of the World and the Sun, the daily tabloid, have pushed the bounds of taste, decency, accuracy and ethical behaviour. In some ways, this non-establishment behaviour by “red tops” is what has made them so popular for over a century. The Sun, for example, sells more copies each day than all the “quality” daily news papers added together.
The “phone hacking scandal” is just the furthest extremes in practices. The News of the World may be just one example of the abuse of privacy of people who are not in the public eye. Please note that a non-Murdoch newspaper, Daily Star, has been raided by police and allegations have been made against the Sun and the very establishment Sunday Times.
As Rupert Murdoch has very publicly apologised to one set of victims and was heard saying that he was “appalled” by journalist behaviour, we can see that he has begun to realise the enormity of the problem and, possibly, to reinstate new values to his journalists.
Many public relations theorists (Coombs & Holladay; Fearn-Banks) have proposed ‘apologia’ as strategy in crisis communication and recovery. It sets a base for recovery and reinstating reputation. This has started but is questionable whether Murdoch’s News International group can recover its standing in order to maintain its ‘licence to operate’.
Regulators, parliament and a judicial enquiry into phone-hacking have already limited its operations. It’s possible that US authorities may become involved, as there are claims that 9/11 victims had phones hacked and that payments made by Murdoch journalists to British police for information may be addressed by US anti-bribery laws which reach beyond national jurisdictions.
At this point, the issues to address are 1) what were the Murdoch public relations strategies and behaviours and 2) what future strategies and actions are needed? From the evidence of News International’s public relations spokesperson’s interviews, the strategy had been to ‘deny and reassure’ even when obvious that continuing disclosures demonstrated phone-hacking was widespread.
That strategy painted News International into a tiny corner and has only been reversed when Rupert Murdoch flew into the UK earlier this week. Any “halo” value of past performance in terms of financial success, popularity of publications, political influence and innovation had been eroded. In short, the public relations behaviours were the same as the obstructive attitudes of management. Public relations counsel has either been ignored or supine.
For the future, the apologia delivered by Murdoch has to be followed by very transparent responses to enquiries and police investigations. News International must follow this approach as there is no skerrick of trust in it by major decision-makers. Any further obstruction will close the ‘licence to operate’ further.
Putting aside the phone-hacking scandal, the Murdoch papers have always been leaders in journalism and news. That’s what made them so popular. It has also held politicians and malefactors to account, along with numerous celebrities. The right form of transparent and values-;ed public relations strategy, along with new corporate behaviours, at the News International corporate entity can help restore robust journalism.
That will be very important because there are many key influencers, especially in Parliament, who want to get revenge on the media, not just the Murdoch press. They want to limit the scope of news-gathering and investigation, which will limit debate in a democratic polity. The ‘phone-hacking’ scandal has given them an opportunity, which must be resisted. Public relations strategies can help resist these attempts at greater control.
Recently, I undertook research with Dr Chindu Sreedharan, for the Institute of Public Relations on the skills and training needs of future senior communicators. It was a study amongst top corporate and consultancy communicators in Europe and North America to identify the skills future leaders needed, and training and education to prepare them. A video of my presentation of the report was recently made for the Public Relations Institute of Australia.
One of the key comments that framed the study came from a top European corporate communicator: “It’s no longer sufficient to have a communications background only. Senior communicators need to understand business environment and management styles to be seen as trusted advisors.”
This view that top-level communicators had to understand all the operations of a major organisation was widespread and pointed towards practice developments and education that focus on strategy development and the integration of communication objectives with organisational objectives and KPIs. The report had three groups of conclusions for early implementation:
- Communication strategy must be linked to or part of business strategy
- Communicators should understand the whole business environment, not just media and communication
- Operational experience needed; They need to speak language of the business
Training and Education
- Key subjects are business strategy, financial literacy, economics, public affairs and public diplomacy, and relationship management
- Stronger focus is needed on research and business analysis skills
Proof of Performance
- The ability to interpret and apply the most appropriate research methods is more important than technical measurement skills
- Evaluation frameworks need to be developed for judgement on organisational impact, not clip measurement
- Planning skills need improvement
The full report is available at: http://www.instituteforpr.org/ipr_info/future_leaders/
The “Responding to Extremisms: Media Roles and Responsibilities” conference is being at Bournemouth University on Friday July 15. It’s organised by The Media School in conjunction with Dorset Police. Speakers are from academia, the police, media and think tanks: Responding to Extremisms Conference programme. Register online at http://cerb.eventbrite.com.
It’s great to get recognition when it is well-merited. UK Communications Minister Ed Vaizey has told Parliament that Bournemouth University’s Media School is a world-leader: “It is one of the leading digital media centres, not just in this country, but, I suspect, the world.” He was commenting on the broad involvement of graduates, especially from computer animation, in the digital media sector.
BU is also a leader in public relations, having been one of the first UK universities to introduce a BA in Public Relations, and still attracts the best UK students.