In years to come the News International phone hacking saga will be taught on PR courses as a textbook case of how not to handle a PR crisis. Here’s why:
1. Caught in a crisis the response should be quick, consistent and open. NI let the story about hacking rumble on for months, claiming all the while that it was a problem with one rogue operator. Sticking to an incomplete story is a guarantee of greater problems down the line when the full story comes out. Which it will. ‘Fess up straight away if you’re in the wrong, it gives you some control over the story if it isn’t dribbling out over a long period as new allegations arise. Most experts agree that an attempted cover up can cause bigger headaches than the original sin.
2. If you’re in the wrong, apologise – fully and sincerely, and start talking about what changes you’re going to make to ensure that this never happens again. Presumably under the influence of their new PR company, NI are now set to run full-page ads in the papers apologising for what’s happening. Rebekah Brooks’ initial statement declaring that it was inconceivable that she knew about hacking Milly Dowler’s phone fell several miles short of what was required.
Until the new PRs got to work, there hadn’t been much in the way of apology to the victims from anyone at NI. Today’s meeting between Rupert Murdoch and Milly Dowler’s family may be a first step to recognising that this is a tactical mistake (as well as being morally indefensible…)
3. A bit of humility doesn’t hurt. James Murdoch’s refusal to appear before the Select Committee because the date was inconvenient was cringeworthy. Worse was Rupert’s apparent insistence to the Wall St Journal that the company had been handling the issue extremely well.
4. Think about the information that everyone involved will need. This includes regulators, customers, investors, suppliers, victims and – a crucial group that NI has rather ignored – your own staff. Former News of the World staff, sacked a week before Rebekah Brooks felt compelled to go, may feel this element of the crisis could have been better handled…
and most importantly
5. You need to be prepared. NI don’t seem to have had a Head of Comms working on this until this January. so no wonder their responses have been flat-footed. It’s worth:
- Having a regular health check of the business to see where problems might arise and do scenario planning to see how you’d cope if the worst happened
- Having a team in place to manage a crisis, with people who are sufficiently senior to be able to take quick decisions without having to refer to managers
- Identifying a media-trained spokesperson to deal with enquiries to ensure a consistent message gets through
- Remembering the power of the non-traditional media. Think how you’d deal with Twitter or Facebook in full flow…
- Practising. Running the odd “pretend crisis” session will test the systems you’ve put in place and make sure they’re robust.